No-strike Britain

Parties vie for the toughest union law
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The Independent Online
The unions yesterday moved centre-stage in the election battle, as the Government and the Labour Party competed with each other to strike the toughest "no strike Britain" stance.

The Government revealed proposals to extend the "cooling off" period before strikes in "public and monopoly services", and Labour indicated that they may force unions to go to arbitration before launching strikes.

As ministers considered lengthening the statutory notice before stoppages from seven days to a fortnight or even a month, rail union leaders predicted that disruption in the network would spread and union leaders at the Royal Mail meet today to decide whether to call more 24-hour stoppages.

John Major, on a tour of the West Country, said: "We are looking at a number of options to deal essentially with strikes in the public service where it is a monopoly. The reason for that is self evident ... the public pay the taxes by which people in the public service are paid. A strike against the public that pays their taxes seems to me to be out of date.

"We are looking at a range of options and when we have concluded that exercise we will publish what we plan to do," the Prime Minister said.

Downing Street appeared to rule out action before a general election, but a pledge to legislate was last night emerging as one of the Tories' key General Election manifesto commitments in an attempt to put Tony Blair and Labour on the defensive over the party's traditional links with the unions.

Labour confirmed its intention to place tighter restrictions on public sector strikes, ahead of Mr Blair's visit today the TUC's annual congress, meeting in Blackpool this week.

David Blunkett, Labour's spokesman on education and employment, is scheduled to address a congress fringe meeting on employment rights today, where he is expected to announce a "requirement" that unions in the public services should go to arbitration "in certain circumstances".

Yesterday at the conference Peter Hain, a Labour employment spokesman, said the party would put arbitration at the "centre-stage" of its industrial relations strategy. The proposals - which included a stronger role for the conciliation service Acas - would be put out for consultation among both unions and management.

It is understood that Mr Blunkett will also suggest that unions should make a practice of putting fresh offers from employers out to ballot during disputes. Mr Blair has urged the Communication Workers' Union to hold a vote among postal workers on Royal Mail proposals.

In a coded warning to Labour, Bill Morris, the leader of the Transport and General Workers' Union, told TUC delegates that politicians should not engage in a "game of political leap-frogging about who can bash the workers most".

Attacking Government proposals for a longer cooling off period, John Monks, the TUC general secretary, said it could lead to increased frustration and reduce the chances of a settlement.

Jimmy Knapp, general secretary of the RMT transport union, said that longer notice periods before strikes would "sharpen the arguments, raise the temperature and prolong disputes". The policy had been tried by the Heath government in the 1970s and failed.

Mr Knapp said there had been no negotiations in an attempt to avert a 24-hour stoppage by guards and on-train catering staff over productivity payments tomorrow at seven rail companies and he expected the strikes to go ahead. The companies concerned are North London, Mersey Rail Electrics, Cross Country Trains, North East Regional Railways, North West Regional Railways, ScotRail and South Wales and West.

He predicted that strike ballots at a further 10 train operators on the same issue would produce resounding 'Yes' votes on Thursday. All 17 companies are expected to be hit by a walkout on 23 September.

Union activists involved in the post dispute met in London before today's critical session of the executive of the CWU, which will decide whether to accept a management offer. Some of the union's divisional representatives called for an escalation of the campaign of 24-hour strikes, while others argued that a peace formula should be put out to the membership with a recommendation to reject.

Rights call, page 2

Letters, page 11

John Monks , page 13