Politics: Beckett blow for union hopes of recognition

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MINISTERS have decided to reject a TUC demand for trade union recognition on the basis of a simple majority of those voting in workplace ballots.

An explosion of union anger will be provoked by the decision when it is revealed in a "Fairness at Work" White Paper policy statement, due to be published in May.

But Margaret Beckett, President of the Board of Trade, says in an interview for today's New Statesman that both the CBI and the TUC have "legitimate points of view" on the matter.

While the TUC wants a straight majority of those voting, the CBI is demanding a much tougher threshold for union recognition - a majority of those eligible to vote. It is also calling for exemption for companies with fewer than 50 employees.

Mrs Beckett says in today's interview: "Our task is to construct a legislative framework which is practical in solving disputes in those small number of cases when they arise."

While the TUC wants any legislation to contain hard-and fast rules, the Government will instead offer conciliation procedures to resolve disputes.

A measure of the union response to that compromise was provided in another New Statesman interview, last month, when Bill Morris, general secretary of the transport workers' union, threatened strikes in support of recognition, if the unions did not get their way. "This is a defining issue for trade unionists," he said. "There is simply no room, for compromise. The Government will not be able to fulfil its commitment to fairness at work by legislating for bad employers, which is what a compromise would mean. It's a straightforward choice: either the Government supports the CBI position, or the TUC position."

On the basis of what Mrs Beckett is now saying, Mr Morris is going to be disappointed. But ministers are determined to crack the traditional "them-and-us" divide. Employers and unions will be encouraged to work out solutions to their differences, and if they fail, they could be required to go through a conciliation body that would be there the resolve intractable disputes.

On the other controversial issue she is currently dealing with, Mrs Beckett again reflected the Government's search for a working partnership, saying: "The caricature of business hating the minimum wage was never entirely true, and the unions have taken the view for a long time that it's the principle that matters most. Surveys suggest a lot of wage settlements are already being biased towards the lower-paid. It's happening without a noticeable impact on differentials."