TUC presses Labour on new union rights

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The Independent Online

Labour Editor

The Labour Party yesterday came under pressure to support a law which could mean imprisonment for employers who flout new union-recognition rights.

Union leaders are urging the Labour leadership to allow the ultimate sanction of contempt of court for organisations refusing to obey the decisions of a statutory "Representation Agency".

While the TUC insisted that a new report, Your Voice At Work, was not aimed at Labour, there can be little doubt which party is the target of the 48-page booklet. Under the proposals, drawn up by a task force with representatives from Labour's largest affiliates, all 21 million British workers would have the right to be represented at work by an independent individual or a union.

There would also be a right to be consulted by employers over major changes in the company. Where union members made up 10 per cent of the workforce, the employer would be obliged to consult them collectively.

The Representation Agency, made up of employees' representatives and management, would have the power to order union recognition where a majority of employees wanted it. Unions would have the option of taking employers to court if the agency's rulings were flouted. Sanctions on recalcitrant employers would include compensation to staff, and "in extreme cases" contempt of court principles would be applied.

Harriet Harman, Labour's employment spokeswoman, welcomed the document as "an important contribution to the debate", but added that the views of employers would be canvassed before the party drew up its own proposals.

Bill Morris, leader of the Transport and General Workers' Union, the party's biggest affiliate, said the proposals were a modest means of redressing the present imbalance at the workplace. "At a time of growing insecurity, people need a voice at work as never before. The choice to be represented by an independent adviser over disciplinary or grievance problems can simply be denied by an employer."

John Monks, general secretary of the TUC, said the document would be refined in the light of a debate at this year's congress in September. He said the proposals combined new rights under European law with collective-bargaining traditions. "In any other European country they would be taken for granted by unions and employers, and accepted across the political spectrum. It is a mark of how backward Britain has become that we are having to propose them at all."