TUC Conference: Unions urged to join Channel link firms: GMB excited at prospect of joining project, as Congress votes to keep railways in public sector

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The Independent Online
IN THE FIRST initiative of its kind, multi-national companies have invited British unions to join a consortium to bid for the Channel tunnel rail link.

The GMB general union expressed its 'excitement' at the prospect of participating in the rail project yesterday as the TUC Congress voted unanimously to keep the railways in the public sector.

Senior representatives of a German-led group met officials of five unions in Blackpool to make the offer. The successful bidder will both build and operate the line, which will run from the tunnel to St Pancras and Waterloo stations in London.

Union participation in the consortium would mark a historic departure for the British labour movement, which has fought shy of such a high-profile involvement with management.

Despite a conviction that the Government should be financing the construction and a state-owned British Rail running the route, the GMB declared an intense interest in taking a stake.

While investment from unions in the pounds 2.7bn project is only likely to be counted in hundreds of thousands of pounds, it could mark a defining moment for the movement. Other unions approached are the Transport and General; the RMT transport union; Aslef, the train drivers' union; and TSSA, the rail white collar union.

Richard Rosser, general secretary of the moderate TSSA, said his union would be interested in talking to the group, but the other, more traditionalist unions will have considerable reservations.

Left-wingers at the TUC annual congress in Blackpool yesterday were already pointing out that the plan would present difficulties for unions wishing to represent their members' interests independently.

John Edmonds, leader of the GMB, said his organisation had participated in commercial ventures before, but no union had been asked to become an equity partner in a major construction project at such an early stage.

He revealed that GMB had been prepared to put up pounds 350,000 to help the French company CMN rescue the Swan Hunter shipyard on Tyneside, but the problems faced by the complex were thought to be insurmountable.

The Channel tunnel link consortium is led by the German companies Hoechst and Siemens, together with Britain's Costain group and the Japanese firm Nisimatsu. Senior directors are convinced that industrial peace during the construction phase, and during subsequent operation, would be ensured by the participation of unions.

Speaking at the TUC congress, Mr Edmonds pointed out that the 'social partnership' proposed by the multinationals was quite common on the Continent.

'We have been invited to participate and to contribute money, because the companies recognise that working together is better for business and employees. This kind of relationship is common on the Continent and the social partnership between unions and companies will be the industrial relations model of the future.'