New winter of discontent may be on the way

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A warning by leading employment lawyers that industrial relations may be heading towards the worst "winter of discontent" for years have come under fire from trade unions.

The TUC, anxious to promote industrial peace and partnership ahead of its annual conference next week, denounced a survey by the solicitors Dibb Lupton Alsop which showed increasing industrial tension as "flawed and irresponsible".'

The report showed that "industrial unrest" had increased for the fifth year running, with 42 per cent of unionised employers affected in the last year.

It comes as leaders of 21,000 employees at the Ford Motor Company yesterday lodged a claim for a "substantial" pay rise and a two-hour cut in the working week amid predictions that this year's high-profile negotiations are likely to be "fraught".

Within inflation standing at 3.3 per cent and economists expecting it to move higher, leaders of Ford's manual workers will be expecting a rise well in excess of 4 per cent.

The settlement at Ford is always one of the most influential deals in the wage round and will provide a target for millions of workers in manufacturing.

Although the present 39-hour week is the longest in the car industry, it is unclear whether Ford workers will be prepared to forego part of their wage rise in order to fund a reduction in working time. The company has always resisted calls to reduce the working week.

Leaders of the Transport and General Workers Union and the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union - the largest unions at Ford - also tabled a claim for a job security agreement as part of which management would agree to try and find alternative work where a job became redundant. Management, which has favoured two-year deals in the past, is due to respond to unions next month.

Tony Woodley, chief negotiator for the TGWU, said Ford workers' pay had slipped behind employees at other companies by as much as 11 per cent despite "massive improvements" in productivity.

Inflation is fuelling an acceleration in pay rises in other parts of industry. Research group Incomes Data Services says well over half of settlements in recent weeks have given rises in the 3 to 4 per cent range.