At a meeting of the party's Trade Union Liaison Committee on Saturday, union general secretaries warned the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, that three million trade unionists who pay a levy to the party were increasingly asking what they got for their money.
This disaffection is beginning to show itself in industrial unrest, union leaders told the party. More than 200,000 health workers are being balloted on strikes over pay and firefighters are voting on action in Manchester and West Yorkshire over the introduction of inferior employment contracts.
While still commanding half the votes at policy-making conferences, unions are also deeply concerned that proposed reforms to local party structures are part of a plan to emasculate them.
John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB general union, led the onslaught at the liaison meeting, arguing that there was a need to get Labour's message across to its grassroots supporters, and that the Government needed to show public service workers that they were valued. His sentiments were then echoed by Jimmy Knapp, leader of the RMT rail union, which is balloting 5,000 train guards on industrial action, and Bill Morris, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, who chaired the meeting.
At the TUC conference this month union leaders publicly dissociated themselves from a call by the Fire Brigades Union leader, Ken Cameron, to consider breaking the traditional link with the party. However. in the private session the Deputy Prime Minister was left in no doubt about the disquiet in the union movement.
Mr Edmonds repeated his contentions yesterday in a speech to conference in which he called for enhanced investment in public services. But Sir Ken Jackson, general secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, argued that ministers had delivered considerable changes for the benefit of workers. "The choice is not between a Labour government we want and a Labour government we've got, but between a Labour government and a Tory one," he said.
Meanwhile attempts by senior Labour officials to keep union disaffection off the conference agenda were only partly successful, with the lead- ership still facing its first defeat for five years on the issue of Post Office commercialisation.
Delegates are expected to back an emergency motion from the Communication Workers Union that registers concern at plans for the Post Office. Leaders of the MSF union, who were worried by implications of the working time directive, are understood to have accepted assurances that up to eight million white-collar workers will not be excluded.