John Monks, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said he would make legal submissions to the European Court unless Stephen Byers, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, changed his mind. Mr Monks said he was expecting the cabinet minister to "explain himself" when he addressed the TUC conference in Brighton on Monday.
Mr Monks said Mr Byers had allowed only an "insulting two-week" period of consultation over the amendment to European law. The change meant that "voluntary" overtime by salaried workers would not count towards the 48- hour limit on working time.
Mr Monks said it was an issue over which feelings were running high. "We will let our full discontent be known in every possible way. We don't think this was an impressive piece of government."
In his pre-conference interview, Mr Monks said trade union membership could increase by more than one million over the next five years, provided the movement did not revert to the class war of the past. Some of the country's biggest companies were in highly sensitive discussions with Congress House. If succcessful, they would add an additional 150,000 members over the next year or so, he said. The normally ultra-cautious TUC general secretary said unions were in the best position to attract members for a generation. However, he urged workers' leaders not to defend "second-rate" employment practices.
While New Labour is keen to play down its employment legislation for fear of being seen as "soft" on unions, Mr Monks argued it would be a "huge mistake" to underestimate the 26 new rights at work that were either on the statute book or on the way. In particular, the TUC leader predicted that laws on union recognition, due to come into force early next summer, could have a substantial impact on recruitment. His comments come amid signs that the decline in union membership has been arrested at just over six million. However, in nearly half of British workplaces there are no union members whatsoever.
Mr Monks warned that an increase in membership should not be an excuse for a return to the ideology of class war. "There is no future for unions in defending the second rate. There is still an ingrained conservatism in a lot of industries and services," he said. However, it was not always unions at fault; members were sometimes guilty of conservatism.
He said Post Office workers had recently failed to see the merit of change and rejected a deal that would have given them an 18 per cent increase in basic pensionable pay at the expense of a Byzantine structure of overtime payments.
"It does not mean that unions should become poodles. They should seek positions where they are respected along with their members."
Critical to the future of unions was their ability to attract young people, Mr Monks said. The average age of members was 46 and only 19 per cent of workers between the ages of 20 and 29 belonged. Just 6 per cent of those under 20 had signed up. The movement would have to "market" itself through the Internet and elsewhere and increase the range of services on offer.
Mr Monks insisted on his public support of the euro, despite criticism from public- service unions and the possibility of a clash at conference. "I've always been an advocate of British entry for trade union reasons. When I look round the world to see where trade unionism is held in proper regard, where good public services are provided and workers are afforded proper protection, you are looking at Europe.
"You are not looking at the Far East or the US where unions are fighting for their lives. Europe needs to punch its weight and therefore the euro needs to be strong," he said.Reuse content