Unions: Unions win first round of battle for employment rights

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But far worse for Mr Blair was his failure to persuade the party's national executive to oppose the resolutions and two other propositions tabled by the big unions. After frantic comings and goings, the Prime Minister's aides abandoned an attempt to enlist the support of the key committee.

Convinced that the NEC would back all four "contemporary motions", Downing Street agreed that the key committee should not debate the issues in case Mr Blair's views were rejected. The Prime Minister wanted the NEC to persuade unions to "remit" the motions, in effect abandoning them.

It is thought to be the first time in Labour history that the party leadership has failed to take a position on major issues being debated at the conference.

The most sensitive resolution, thought to have been passed by the conference, came from the left-led Transport and General Workers' Union (T&G) which demanded the right for workers to take supportive industrial action where there was a "close connection" between two sets of employees.

A card vote was being counted overnight, and senior union sources were convinced the resolution had won the backing of the conference. The motion called for simplification of strike-balloting and protection for strikers from dismissal and replacement by alternative workers.

Tony Woodley, the general secretary of the T&G, said the resolution was prompted by the "shameful" treatment of workers during the Gate Gourmet dispute at Heathrow. Mr Woodley said he was "disgusted" that the Government had not openly condemned the company's "atrocious behaviour".

Delegates rubbed salt in Mr Blair's wounds when they backed a resolution, tabled by the Amicus trade union, calling for a "level playing field" with Europe over employment rights and a switch to the "European social model of economic prosperity".

Mr Simpson told delegates that job security in Britain was non-existent. "The threat of redundancy hangs over everyone in the private sector."

He said it could take a year for French companies to cut jobs, but in Britain it took just 90 days.

But Alan Johnson, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, told delegates there was no question of the Government allowing workers to take secondary action or matching European employment law. "In our quest for full and fulfilling employment we realised we could not go through the 1980s and 1990s only to emerge in the 1970s.

"Back then, this party supported secondary action and opposed the minimum wage. Now it's the other way round and that's how it needs to stay."

Debate on a motion proposed by the GMB general union calling for employers to be forced to set up pension schemes was postponed until tomorrow.