Clash of ideologies in minimum wage battle

The TUC in Brighton: War of words over call for pounds 4.15 hourly rate , but agreement that full employment is an achievable goal
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The Independent Online
Unions yesterday waged a war of words over the level of a future national minimum wage as Labour warned it should not be used to maintain the pay gap between high- and low-paid workers.

While on paper the TUC united around a policy towards the minimum wage, delegates were still split over what the exact rate should be. Some took the official line it should be struck at half male median earnings and that the exact figure should not be announced until after a consultation process; others insisted it should be pounds 4.15.

As John Monks, general- secretary of the TUC, rose to introduce the resolution, about 30 women delegates in T-shirts emblazoned with the figure pounds 4.15 marched in front of the podium. Under pressure from Tony Blair, the Labour leader, unions had dropped an amendment calling for the figure but it was clear yesterday it still commanded considerable support.

Speaking at the Conference Centre in Brighton after the debate, Harriet Harman, Labour's employment spokeswoman, stamped on any suggestion that skilled workers should seek to maintain pay differentials above a new statutory minimum.

The Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union said earlier this week it would fight to maintain such gaps. Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, said yesterday that the preservation of differentials over a figure of pounds 4.15 would cost two million jobs.

Miss Harman said that while there was no intention to fetter collective bargaining "the national minimum wage of itself does not justify anybody else having a pay rise".

In the debate Tony Young, joint general secretary of the Communication Workers' Union, warned delegates that a rate set at pounds 4.15 could be used against the movement in the propaganda war before the next general election. Referring to a tax scare spread by the Conservatives about Labour in 1992, he said: "It might not be a tax bombshell this time, it could be a job- loss bombshell."

He reminded delegates that some economists predicted there would be considerable redundancies if the rate was too high. The half male median earnings formula could produce a range of figures between pounds 3.60 and pounds 4.15, he said.The debate was about a serious attempt to end poverty pay.

Other delegates argued for pounds 4.15. Tony Burke, deputy general secretary of the GTMU print union, said the figure produced weekly earnings of just pounds 166 before deductions. Sir Richard Greenbury, chairman of Marks & Spencer and leader of the CBI inquiry into boardroom pay, earned that much in an hour and a half, he said.

t The TUC also yesterday reaffirmed its commitment to full employment. Despite admitting in its own submission to the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, this month that full employment is not easy to define, the congress voted for a range of measures - such as training, investment and regional agencies - to attain what it still regards as "an achievable economic and social goal".