The huge prize within the TUC's grasp

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The "feel bad factor" has particular resonance at Congress House, the TUC's unprepossessing offices in central London. Officials take numerous calls from anguished workers about ruthless employers, underpayment of wages and arbitrary dismissal, but there is little that can be done for them.

Advice is dispensed, but rarely are the services of a union official offered. "If one of our people went round, it would probably ensure the complainant's dismissal," according to John Monks, the TUC general secretary. Workers increasingly find that a permanent, full-time job on decent wages with a reasonably benign employer is a distant dream.

The decay of the heavily unionised "smoke-stack" industries over the last decade or so and the present fashion of "downsizing, delayering and restructuring" have all contributed to dwindling union membership. In some cases union recognition has been withdrawn - the "flexible labour market" has visited itself upon the middle class.

Particularly depressing for the TUC is that just 5 per cent of employees under 20 are members of unions or staff associations, according to the Labour Force Survey.

It is not that trade unionism is unpopular. A series of polls has shown the overwhelming majority of the electorate believe that unions should play a role in the world of work. And job insecurity and the consequent "feel bad factor" should be the unions' most potent recruiting sergeant, but the decline in membership continues apace. From a high of 12 million in 1979, TUC-affiliated organisations now boast fewer than 7 million. The Government has created an atmosphere in which "the manager's right to manage" has been at the unions' expense.

The labour movement has had to look for friends on the Continent. Addressing TUC delegates today, Jacques Santer, president of the European Commission, is expected to express scepticism about the British government's ability to ensure the Social Chapter ends at Calais. Through legislation and court rulings, Brussels is continually nibbling away at Britain's European "opt- out".

The reality, however, is that unions need the return of a Labour government. In particular they need legislation foreshadowed in a congress debate on Thursday which would ensure union recognition in companies where a majority of employees want it.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of such legislation to the TUC. Imagine the likes of Honda, Marks & Spencer and Trusthouse Forte being forced to engage in collective bargaining. The prize is potentially huge for the TUC.

Hence Mr Monks's keenness not to alienate Tony Blair, the Labour leader who addresses the conference tomorrow, over the minimum wage.

It is only now dawning on employers that such a law could have a far-reaching effect on industrial relations. Under a Labour government the anguished employees might well be directed to a new official agency which could oversee a ballot on union recognition. A delicious prospect for the TUC.