The Labour leader will arrive in Blackpool at a time when John Monks, moderate general secretary of the TUC, and other senior figures are going out of their way to declare total support for the stoppage.
In a tough talking pre-Congress speech last night, the 'modernising' Mr Monks rounded on those who believe he may be embarrassed by the disruption: 'I want to make it crystal clear now that effective unionism needs effective action and the TUC is supporting the RMT to the hilt in this dispute.'
Mr Blair's overnight visit to the 126th Congress comes as the movement seems to have rediscovered the legitimacy of strike action. Earlier yesterday, Mr Monks described the signal workers' action as a 'thoroughly modern strike'. It was 'fully balloted, fully legal, overwhelmingly supported by signal workers and strongly supported by the public, especially the train-travelling public'.
Many employees suffering under unfair employers were 'pleased to see someone having a go'. Mr Monks, who has previously fought shy of speaking about industrial action, predicted an upsurge in militancy as trade unionists seek to share the benefits of recovery. Mr Blair is to have dinner with the TUC's general council tomorrow night, which will be presided over by Jimmy Knapp, general secretary of the RMT transport union and chair of the TUC.
Mr Blair's fleeting appearance in Blackpool will come 48 hours ahead of an emergency debate at the congress, whose deliberations this week will almost certainly be overshadowed by the dispute. The 13th signal workers' stoppage has been timed to coincide with the discussion.
In a preview of the week's debates, Mr Monks said he envisaged a 'close' relationship with a future Labour government, but said he also intended to pursue his policy of developing links with other political parties and with employers. At last night's rally, Mr Knapp laid the blame for the rail dispute squarely at the door of the Government and called on the Prime Minister to allow Railtrack to negotiate a settlement.
'My advice to ministers is to give up trying to play Thatcher . . . Let Railtrack meet us openly and honestly and we'll do a deal.'
In its latest bulletin to staff, Railtrack predicts that more stations will be open during this week's strike. John Ellis, the company's production director, said: 'We hope that our increasing success in running the network despite the strike will persuade the RMT to end the industrial action and get talks going.' Mr Monks disclosed the findings of an NOP poll which showed that 89 per cent of the population now agreed that unions were necessary to protect people's interests at work - compared with only 74 per cent in 1991.
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