Cabinet will back unions on rights

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THE GOVERNMENT has rejected employers' proposals to water down a key element of its plans for workers' rights, The Independent has learnt.

Much to the frustration of the Downing Street Policy Unit, ministers have acceded to the wishes of unions and will refuse to undermine the controversial proposals for automatic union recognition where a majority of employees are in membership.

Originally the Confederation of British Industry and the Prime Minister's policy advisors argued that workers should count towards recognition only if they had been members for at least 12 months.

In private negotiations, the "delaying period" was cut to six months, then three months and has now been dropped.

After his concession to unions, however, Peter Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, is furious that they are now opposing his plan to issue detailed guidelines to the Central Arbitration Committee, to enable it to assess unions claims for automatic bargaining rights. Mr Mandelson has told unions that the committee must have clear ground rules for assessing whether someone is a bona fide member of a union.

Unions fear that the cabinet minister is attempting another "wheeze" to make automatic recognition difficult. "If it is a genuine attempt to solve arguments over recognition by the simplest and clearest means, we support it.

"If it envelops the whole thing in red tape which will take more than three months to disentangle, then we are opposed to it," one senior union official said.

A Whitehall source, however, said: "The TUC is trying to have its cake and eat it. It won't accept anything that might fetter its God-given right to automatic recognition. All the Government wants is for applications to be subject to reasonable scrutiny by the CAC."

The row has prevented the Government finalising its Fairness at Work Bill, which is now unlikely to be published until the new year.

The decision to turn down some form of delaying mechanism, however, is a clear victory for union leaders. Theyargued that the constant turnover of labour, and the possibility that management might "lean" on employees to quit unions, meant that a time lapse would severely undermine the law's effectiveness.

Ken Jackson, the right-wing leader of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, and the nearest thing to a Prime Ministerial ally in the union movement, threatened retaliatory action if the CBI's demands were met. Mr Jackson warned that his union would be far more selective about its financial backing for Labour candidates in a whole range of elections.

Employers, however, have succeeded in amending another critical element of the Fairness At Work White Paper published earlier this year. While the document envisaged removing the upper limit on compensation for unfair dismissal, ministers have accepted the representations of employers and will increase the cap from the present pounds 12,000 to pounds 40,000 or pounds 50,000. Employers suggested that the removal of the cap would lead to an explosion of litigation.