Cherie Booth takes on CBI over unions' future

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The Independent Online

The Prime Minister's wife will clash with the leader of the Confederation of British Industry tomorrow in a debate on the future of trade unions.

Cherie Booth QC will join John Monks, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, to mount a robust defence of the trade union movement a week after her husband's commitment to workers' rights was called into question by TUC leaders.

At an event organised by Britain's biggest association of employment lawyers, Ms Booth will counter arguments by Digby Jones, the director general of the CBI, that "the trade union movement is dead".

Ms Booth, a barrister and founder member of the human rights chambers Matrix, is a lifelong supporter of the trade union movement and has acted for the TUC and its membership in a number of court cases.

At the TUC's annual conference last week, Sir Ken Jackson, the general secretary of the AEEU and usually the most party-loyal of Britain's big union leaders, told the Prime Minister that ministers did not understand the fears of thousands of British workers affected by the economic slowdown. A hostile reception awaited Mr Blair when he was due to speak directly to the delegates last Tuesday but the suicide attacks in America forced him to cut short his appearance.

His wife's unfaltering commitment to workers' rights comes from her own working- class roots. Her mother, who raised Cherie on her own, is said to have worked in a fish and chip shop to make ends meet before getting a job in the travel section of the Littlewoods department store. Last year, Ms Booth told an audience of lawyers that more should be done to support trainee barristers and solicitors who came from poor families.

Mr Jones, a commercial solicitor, is expected to point to declining membership to justify the contention that the union movement has no future.

After the debate the audience, which will include representatives of all the main employment law organisations in Britain, will be asked to vote for the most convincing argument.

A spokesman for the Association of Employment Lawyers, which is hosting the debate in London, said that Ms Booth and Mr Monks might find it a difficult task to "defend" the continuing importance of trade unions.

Last week, Ms Booth spoke of her working-class childhood as she presented the One Parent Family Awards to women who have succeeded in juggling a career with raising children.

She paid tribute to her mother's "determination" in raising two young daughters as a single parent. She said: "When I was a child, my mother was faced with the prospect of bringing up two daughters alone. She was lucky because she had the support of her mother-in-law and a wide extended family."