MPs revolt over union rights

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR faces a fresh parliamentary revolt over plans to abandon Labour's manifesto commitment on rights at work.

More than 80 Government backbenchers packed a secret meeting last week to demand full implementation of the party's promise to grant trade union recognition where workers vote for it.

They voiced anger over leaks from Downing Street that the Prime Minister would bow to business pressure - including Rupert Murdoch - to water down the manifesto pledge, and threatened a rebellion that would put the recent revolt over one-parent families into the shade.

The MPs demanded a meeting with ministers at the Department of Trade and Industry, at which they will warn of a hostile reaction building up right across the political spectrum of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

"This isn't a Left-Right issue. It unites all sections," said a veteran MP who attended the meeting. "The manifesto commitment is clear, and we want it enacted." The Trade Union Group meeting brought together MPs with strong links to Unison, the TGWU, the general union GMB, the white-collar union MSF, the printworkers' union GPMU, the National Union of Mineworkers and others.

A White Paper on trade union recognition was due out this month, but it has now been delayed until March. Labour's manifesto promised union recognition when a ballot of "the relevant workforce" produces a majority in favour.

This formula of words was agreed with union leaders before the election, and they say it means a majority of workers taking part in a recognition ballot. The CBI, representing business, argues that to secure recognition, the unions should win a majority of all employees in the company.

MPs argue this will involve managers taking part in a vote on whether their staff can be unionised, and is unacceptable. It would mean 51 per cent of the entire workforce, rather than union members, would have to vote in favour of union recognition.

The TUC points out that if the general election had been run on such a basis - where, in order to be elected, an MP had to secure 51 per cent of the entire electorate in their constituency - only 14 Labour MPs would have been returned, rather than more than 400.

Trade union leaders are also to meet DTI Minister of State Ian McCartney, over the next fortnight, before a final meeting with Mr Blair about the contents of the paper. They fear it could either come down on the side of the CBI, or present a number of options that would drive a coach and horses through the original concept.

The Prime Minister has dismissed the unions' fears, describing them as "Labour Unionists" - anxious about something that is not going to happen, like the Unionists' fear of a united Ireland. His office confirmed that the Government is still considering the rival demands of business and the unions, and would come to a conclusion in due course.

The GMB's John Edmonds said: "The manifesto commitment is clear. We trust the Government to implement it."

However, MPs believe that the Government is also under back-stage pressure from Rupert Murdoch, whose tabloid papers gave critical support to Labour at the election. Executives of his News International company have warned Mr Blair that they do not like the proposed recognition law, which could bring the unions back into his Wapping plant 12 years after Murdoch's long - and successful - battle to drive them out of his UK operations.

The potential threat of loss of support from the Murdoch press is balanced by a similar danger that the unions could withdraw financial backing from the Labour Party, to which they contribute pounds 7m a year. Some unions are privately warning that they will be reluctant to pay up if Mr Blair reneges on what they see as a cast-iron pledge.