Unions invited to No 10 to heal rift with Government

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The Prime Minister is to hold regular meetings with senior union officials to quell growing unrest over plans to increase private-sector involvement in public services and demands for wide-ranging employment rights.

The Prime Minister is to hold regular meetings with senior union officials to quell growing unrest over plans to increase private-sector involvement in public services and demands for wide-ranging employment rights.

For the first time since Labour was elected in 1997, Tony Blair has agreed to play host to representatives of the countries biggest unions at Downing Street in an attempt to forge a far closer relationship. Unlike last week's much-publicised "working dinner'' the talks, intended to allay fears on "creeping privatisation", will take place in private.

There is also to be a shake-up in the policy unit at Number Ten, involving new staff with stronger trade union credentials.

A senior official in one of Britain's largest unions said yesterday that the Government and the union movement agreed that there was need for closer liaison. "Both sides realise we have got off to a bad start,'' he said.

As Downing Street moved to heal the damaging rift, the leader of a big Labour Party affiliate opened a new battle front with the Government.

Bill Morris, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU), demanded a wide range of new union rights including freedom to stage "political'' strikes. Mr Morris told his union's biennial conference in Brighton that the organisation had "much unfinished business'' with the Government. In his keynote address, he demanded full employment protection from "day one'' of employment. Currently, workers can only claim unfair dismissal after being employed for a year.

He said unions should also have all the rights enshrined under a charter drawn up by the UN's International Labour Organisation including the ability to down tools in solidarity with other employees.

The TGWU leader demanded that unions should have freedom to mount the kind of mass pickets that were characteristic of some industrial disputes in the 70s and 80s. Under present laws unions can face unlimited fines for "secondary'' action.

Laws introduced by the Labour Government enforcing union recognition where a majority of employees want it should be extended to firms with fewer than 20 employees. "We say access to justice should not depend on how many people are employed in the work place or how long you've been on the pay roll."

A resolution to be passed overwhelmingly by delegates tomorrow will also call for the abolition of tight regulations imposed on strike ballots.

Delegates will argue that there should be no warnings on the start of ballots or strikes. The conference also agreed to demand a minimum £6 an hour for TGWU members in the coming wage round.

Ministers had said there should be no "ideological barrier'' to the involvement of the private sector in public services and the TGWU recognised no similar barrier in building a coalition to defend state services, Mr Morris said. That was a reference to his readiness to join one-off campaigns alongside the Liberal Democrats.

He rejected any suggestion that the union should break its link with the Labour Party, however. "It's like the old adage: my mother drunk or sober. I say, 'My party right or wrong'.''

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