Ministers try to dilute union rights

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DOWNING STREET has launched an eleventh-hour attempt to water down key proposals on employment rights, The Independent has learnt.

Under pressure from employers, the Prime Minister's advisers are seeking to weaken plans to grant automatic recognition to unions where they can prove more than half a workforce are members. Union leaders and senior backbenchers reacted with fury last night. The policy unit in Downing Street, with the tacit approval of Tony Blair, wants to impose a test of long-standing commitment to a union beyond simple membership.

Under proposals tabled by Number Ten, employees would have to be in membership for at least a year before they counted towards a test for automatic recognition. The suggestion originally came from the CBI, concerned that unions would embark on a recruitment drive to trigger rights to collective bargaining.

Given the normal turnover of staff, and the possibility that employers might favour non-trade unionists, a new policy would place a massive hurdle in the way of recognition. It was pointed out last night that companies could dismiss recruits if they joined the union before the year was up. As part of the "fairness at work" White Paper, employers would be allowed to sack workers before the 12-month deadline without fear of legal action for unfair dismissal. Some of the Government's most loyal supporters in the union movement reacted with fury to the machinations of some of Mr Blair's closest advisers. It is understood the details of the proposed law will be finalised over the next 10 days for inclusion in the Queen's Speech at the end of November.

Ken Jackson, secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, and considered the most "onside" of labour-movement leaders, was said to be "absolutely livid". He encountered considerable opposition from colleagues in other unions for supporting the White Paper. "The legislation must reflect the White Paper as a whole. It was a compromise between industry and unions and we were told on a number of occasions that it was a settled agreement underwritten by the Prime Minister."

He said that if key elements of the proposals changed it would be a "decisive moment" in the relationship between unions and government. Ministers would be introducing an element of "bad faith" and the impression that the document was up for grabs would destabilise industrial relations.

Ian Davidson, chair of the Trade Union group of MPs, said he was demanding an urgent meeting with Peter Mandelson, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, about the intervention by the Downing Street policy unit.

One senior backbencher and a strong supporter of the Trade Union MPs said the amendment would encounter bitter opposition. "The proposals on recognition seemed relatively straightforward. This would make it very difficult for unions to secure recognition and would be impossible to sell to most Labour MPs."

John Monks, TUC general secretary, who also championed the White Paper, said attempts to weaken it would encounter "enormous opposition" from unions and MPs. "I have every confidence that ministers will resist what is frankly a rather crude attempt to undermine the White Paper."

Roger Lyons, secretary of the Manufacturing, Science, Finance union, called the plans a "union-buster's charter". It would "give bad employers the opportunity to bully and intimidate their workers into submission to avoid recognition. The White Paper was called Fairness at Work - this is foul."

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