'Neanderthal man' shares stage with modernisers: Barrie Clement considers some of the issues likely to face TUC leaders at next week's Congress in Blackpool

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The Independent Online
IT IS something of an irony that presiding over the new moderate TUC Congress next week will be the leader of workers taking the most damaging industrial action since the miners' strike.

The genial Jimmy Knapp is both general secretary of RMT, the signal workers' union, and president of the TUC. Next week Mr Knapp, often portrayed as one of the last Neanderthals, will be centre stage. He will take pride of place on the platform amid the kind of consensual emollient, corporate- style tableaux favoured by the movement's modernisers. He may well feel ill at ease.

Sitting on his left and slightly below him will be John Monks, the TUC's general secretary, who is eager at all costs to distance the movement from the militant past and the Labour Party. In fact, he has gone as far as to say that he will seek none of the links with a future Labour government traditionally available to the TUC.

It was Mr Monks who invited David Hunt, then Secretary of State for Employment, to a TUC conference on full employment in July and this autumn will become the first TUC leader to speak at fringe meetings at both the Liberal Democratic and Conservative party conferences. His appearance at a similar forum at the Labour assembly, also a 'first' for a TUC general secretary, is seen as a diplomatic balancing act.

The appointment of the Thatcherite Michael Portillo as Mr Hunt's successor has undermined Mr Monks's search for a rapprochement with the Government, but he seems undaunted. Mr Knapp's view of Cabinet ministers who intervened to veto a potential settlement of the rail dispute is unlikely to be similar to that of Mr Monks.

Despite a degree of support for the signal workers among the public, Mr Monks will be anxious to divert attention away from Mr Knapp and focus it on the relatively staid deliberations of Congress which in recent years has changed from bear pit to Townswomen's Guild. So civilised are conference floor exchanges these days that David Warburton, chairman of the general purposes committee, said the TUC's new logo bears an appropriate resemblance to a 'waffle'.

An emergency motion on the signal workers' dispute is earmarked for the TUC agenda next Thursday along with a march and rally under the shadow of Blackpool's tower. However, the TUC leader would prefer the movement's energies to be focused on an issue which presents one of the biggest problems since Margaret Thatcher first walked into 10 Downing Street.

According to the union-funded Labour Research Department, TUC affiliates this year face the loss of between 600,000 and 1.2 million members. This is the biggest proportionate haemorrhage in living memory.

Under a law introduced a year ago, employers were duty-bound last Thursday to cease deducting union subscriptions from wages unless they receive written confirmation from the worker concerned. Between 80 and 90 per cent of the 6 million who pay their dues through the so-called 'check-off' system have confirmed their membership. While a majority of union members have signed up, it is the last 10 per cent or so which can often make the difference between solvency and penury.

While proceedings at the annual gathering are relatively genteel these days, at least one spectre from the fratricidal past could come back to visit Mr Monks next week.

In order for the expelled electricians' union to reaffiliate to the TUC as part of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union last year, it had to agree to give up members 'poached' from other unions. The employers concerned, however, have warned that they will refuse to recognise any union other than the AEEU. Might the TUC find itself in the position of preferring 'derecognition' to an agreement involving the AEEU? A ticklish one for Mr Monks.