Tories raise spectre of trade unions

Election Countdown
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The Conservatives yesterday played the trade-union "card" for the first time in the election battle, denouncing Labour plans for legislation on recognition as a recipe for industrial blackmail.

Tories cancelled a planned statement on school tests by Gillian Shephard in order to make way for an attack by Michael Heseltine on the dangers of increased union power under Labour. A report in yesterday's Daily Mail claiming to have discovered a union "hit- list" of 63 employers prompted the sudden switch of electoral tactics. The list purported to reveal the names of employers which would be "dragooned" into recognising unions if Tony Blair came to power. Labour plans to impose compulsory recognition where more than half of a workforce vote for it.

The Mail's "revelation" led to fresh expressions of concern by employers about the policy and a cock fight between Mr Heseltine and Gordon Brown, shadow chancellor.

It also exposed a serious lack of detail in Labour's policy. The deputy prime minster accused the Opposition of changing its policy three yesterday morning.

Earlier Mr Heseltine told journalists it had been a long battle to curb unions since the Winter of Discontent in 1979. "A Labour government could blow it. The evidence stares us in the face. Today a shocking revelation: a list of 63 British companies that have been targeted as the first victims of Tony Blair's pay-back to the union bosses."

He said companies would become battlegrounds in which different unions would fight out historic rivalries "It would be yesterday's demarcation disputes run riot," he said.

Mr Heseltine said Labour's plans would license industrial blackmail by groups of workers who could disrupt the whole supply chain. The "hit-list" seen by the Mail was prepared by the union-backed Labour Research Department for the TUC and was published last week. It is part of a six-monthly survey of workplaces where unions are seeking recognition. The Mail chose to call it a hit-list drawn up in preparation for new legislation. In fact officials in most unions will have in mind hundreds of companies where recognition could be achieved using the legislation.

It became clear yesterday that Labour's plans were by no means fully formed. Spin-doctors ventured that the Central Arbitration Committee could be used to rule in disputes between unions and employers of what constituted 50 per cent of the workforce. Mr Brown suggested it might be a judge. There has been doubt as to whether entire firms or units within firms would be considered. Mr Brown said: "A recognised unit would be something that would have to be agreed not simply by the unions saying that would be the case but agreed usually by employers and employees themselves. But if there were not then by a third party."

He quoted President Ronald Reagan as someone who had endorsed a more prescriptive system in the US. The shadow chancellor said he did not believe there would be very many disputes over recognition. Out of the top 50 companies, 44 already recognised unions.

He would not give examples of workplaces ripe for recognition. In almost all cases deals would be struck as a result of voluntary agreement.

Mr Brown said he would be issuing a point-by-point rebuttal of the Daily Mail story.

Unions said the Conservatives were guilty of "hysteria" and "McCarthyism". They preferred to call the "hit-list" a roll- call of exploited workers, where employees could not raise problems of low pay or health and safety issues.