Rift with Blair becomes a chasm

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New Labour's rift with the unions widened yesterday when the TUC urged it to toughen proposals on employment law to allow unlimited secondary action and give workers full rights from "day one". The TUC backed a resolution urging Labour to take reforms much further, adding to the party's embarrassment.

Alan Johnson, leader of the postal workers involved in the Royal Mail dispute, attacked Tony Blair's suggestion that his union should ballot on the latest peace offer.

"The question of if and when or how many times we ballot is a matter for us as free independent trade unions, not a matter for the state."

But the conference overwhelmingly defeated a proposition by Mr Johnson calling for workers to be allowed to strike without a vote when "urgent defensive action" was required.

Proposing the resolution which called for a more radical Labour approach, Tony Dubbins, the print workers' leader, denounced its key proposals on union recognition as "nonsense". Plans for ballots among workers before management was obliged to deal with unions were "cumbersome, bureaucratic and unworkable".

Recognition should be "automatic" when a union could prove more than half the workforce were members.

The proposition also demanded that a Blair cabinet grant full rights to workers on the first day of their employment, as promised by John Smith, the Labour leader who died in 1994. Under Mr Blair the party has moved away from the pledge, pointing out that litigation under European law would probably reduce the qualifying period from the present two years to one.

Mr Dubbins, secretary of the GPMU union, said a proposal giving strikers a right to claim unfair dismissal if they were sacked during lawful industrial action "invited victimisation". He said legislation on secondary action should be brought into line with International Labour Organisation conventions, which derive from the United Nations Charter. The ILO standards allow for few restrictions on solidarity action. The print union leader welcomed Labour's commitments in its document "Building Prosperity, Flexibility, Efficiency and Fairness at Work", but said it "fell considerably short" of union aspirations.