Estate agents join the workers

Paul Routledge talks to the woman from the Halifax who'll be at the TUC
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The Independent Online
Christine Robinson, a professional woman working for Halifax Building Society, will take her place tomorrow among the grizzled ranks of blue-collar hard-hats when the Trades Union Congress opens in Blackpool. You might think she would feel apprehensive, but she can't wait.

"I want to tell them how proud I am to be there," she says. "It will be the first time a building society representative has sat in the hall as a delegate. It feels really exciting. I am so looking forward to it."

She will be sitting just behind the teachers and across the aisle from the tough nuts of the Transport and General Workers Union.

In the old days - not so long ago - Mrs Robinson and her 20,000 colleagues in the Independent Union of Halifax Staff would never have dreamt of joining the TUC. It was seen as a militant, strike-happy organisation in bed with Labour, and a bastion of male supremacy.

Since John Monks became general secretary three years ago, however, things have changed. The manual unions have continued to decline, but there has been a steady influx of white-collar professionals ranging from chiropodists and district nurses to Welsh-language teachers and youth workers, bringing in another 150,000 members. Many have affiliated in the past year, and the tempo is increasing. The day cannot be far off when an estate agent sits alongside the boilermakers.

The reasons are not hard to find. The new affiliates are from the growing ranks of the newly insecure. Ged Nichols, general secretary of the Halifax union, advises us to forget the "Nigel" image of the estate agent, with his white socks, his XR3 and his booming self-confidence. "Nigel is joining the union now, because the world has changed. Businesses are contracting, and he is subject to unfair employment practices just like anyone else."

In all, 2,500 Halifax estate agency staff have signed up, although the company still refuses to recognise the union in its house-selling business.

That, too, will change under the political concordat taking shape between the unions and Labour's leadership, almost a Social Contract Mark 2. The unions have not got all they want, but they are satisfied with what they have got in the first round of bids: a statutory national minimum wage, a legal right to recognition, and a commitment to the European Social Chapter, all pledged in Labour's latest policy document, Building Prosperity.

They also confidently expect repeal of the 1993 Act that makes employers ask their workers every three years if they want to continue having union subscriptions deducted from pay packets. This irksome restraint on the "check-off system" can have a serious impact on the cashflow of unions, and trade unionism is big business these days.

Mrs Robinson, a 50-year-old grandmother, insists she is "not a political person" but admits to being a Christian Socialist. Her union's thinking chimes with the new pragmatism of the TUC. John Monks says he is at least as concerned with influencing a Conservative government bent on banning strikes in essential public services and removing rights at work from employees of small business as he is in striking a deal with Tony Blair.

If Mrs Robinson gets to speak, it will be on her union's motion arguing for action to bring the UK's employment law into line with international standards "regardless of the outcome of the forthcoming general election".

Nonetheless, Mr Blair will be in Blackpool, attending a private dinner with the TUC General Council, on Tuesday night. Ostensibly, his policy is "fairness, but no favours", though no other special-interest group can point to such a panoply of promises as the unions have already extracted.

Last Monday, Old Labour revealed its ambitions in Working Life, a report from the Employment Policy Institute advocating, among other things, the re-legalising of secondary industrial action and tougher laws against unfair dismissal.

The 350-page report was unveiled at a party in Congress House, where the warriors of the industrial Cold War - printers, mineworkers, construction workers and firefighters - rubbed shoulders with Rodney Bickerstaffe's Unison, the public-service union. "If the devil should cast his net, a fine haul he'd have," murmured one observer.

A TUC official looked in to this Jurassic Park, and fled. David Blunkett, shadow Employment Secretary, swiftly disowned the document. It would not, he said, form any part of Labour's political agenda.

Not yet, they reply, sotto voce. The unions are playing a long game. They see their membership decline tailing off, and the impending affiliation of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers might just take the TUC affiliation level back over 7 million - a far cry from the 12 million high-water mark of the Seventies, but still the largest grouping in society. This week's big row will be over setting a TUC target for a national minimum wage, and after an acrimonious general council meeting last week, it looks certain that Congress will adopt a facing-both-ways policy: insisting on pounds 4 an hour, but also leaving the final target until after the general election - should the Labour Party win.

Mrs Robinson's concerns are more basic. On a recruitment drive recently, she visited an estate agent's offices where a piece of carpet covered a gaping hole in the floor. Conditions at work remain the bread and butter of trade unionism. "My dad worked in the steel industry," she said, "and he was a trade union member." So in a sense, Mrs Robinson is not going somewhere strange. She is simply coming home.