Labour delivers a boost to the unions

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The Independent Online
Cabinet left-wingers launched a new era of co-operation with trade unions yesterday and pledged that the Government would press ahead with controversial legislation on union recognition.

In the first speech by a senior minister to a union annual conference since the election, David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, assured GMB general union conference delegates in Brighton that there would be a White Paper on employees' rights in the autumn.

In London, John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, met leaders of 1.5 million public sector workers to set out a timetable for the abolition of compulsory competitive tendering in local authorities.

Meanwhile, Margaret Beckett, President of the Board of Trade, made it clear that there would be union representation on working groups set up to advise on competitiveness.

One of the central figures in the Labour project, the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, will meet Trades Union Congress representatives today to discuss his forthcoming Budget on 2 July.

The Government will be anxious to characterise this flurry of activity as evidence of a new European style of social partnership, to which employers will contribute equally, rather than a return to "beer and sandwiches".

However, the support of Prescott, Beckett and Blunkett will be seen by trade unions as welcome evidence that the "soft left" members of the Cabinet have not forgotten their roots. Trade unionism was in clear need of a boost yesterday after official figures showed that membership had shrunk sharply. According to the Labour Force Survey, there were 2 million union members last year, compared with almost 9 million in 1989.

At a press conference in Brighton, Mr Blunkett went some way to allaying the private fears of union leaders that the Government might quietly ditch its manifesto commitment to a law on union recognition. He said the proposal would be part of the White Paper to be issued in the autumn, but made it clear there would be a lengthy period of consultation.

In his speech, which received a standing ovation, he said that "God willing" there would be legislation to introduce a statutory national minimum wage by this time next year. He added that there was a new beginning for Britain with "new government and new unionism", but emphasised that progress could not be made overnight. "You remember and I remember that impossible demands ... led only to tears, recrimination and frustration." He expected unions to be a "critical friend" of the Government and that ministers would reciprocate.

He believed that unions should emphasise the "employability" of their members through co-operating with the government to enhance skill levels. He said the partnership could help to develop quality training. "Learning and training are essential if we are to equip our workforce with the skills they need to move ahead in their current jobs and to move into new jobs."

A spokesman for the GMB welcomed Mr Blunkett's remarks and said the Government had done more for working people in just over four weeks than the last government had achieved in 18 years.

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