Unions challenge Labour policy on secondary action

THE NEW Labour leadership is to come under pressure from the TUC to soften the party's relatively hard-line policies on secondary industrial action.

At present Labour believes that only workers with a 'direct interest' should be allowed to mount solidarity strikes, but the TUC next month will indicate that other secondary action should be permitted.

A proposition supported by left and right-wingers calls for the right of unions to determine their own rules in accordance with conventions set out by the International Labour Organisation, part of the United Nations. These allow for virtually unlimited secondary action.

Ministers are bound to seize on the proposition as a 'strikers' charter' and an illustration of how the Labour Party is influenced by its union paymasters. Delegates at the Labour Party conference in October are likely to vote for a reduction in the union block vote on policy issues from 90 per cent to 70 per cent, but union influence is still perceived to be critical. Senior Labour figures will, however, attempt to dismiss the motion on industrial law, at least in private, as the kind of Congress House 'fudge' which will not be allowed to influence policy.

The motion for the TUC was thrashed out after nearly four hours of negotiations at Congress House on Thursday and was eventually supported by unions traditionally associated with the left, such as the Transport and General and the National and Local Government Officers' Association. It was also supported after considerable discussion by the right-led Institution of Professional and Managerial Staffs and the engineering section of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union.

Right-wingers argue that the resolution simply reiterates existing TUC and Labour Party policy because it explicitly says there can be no return to the pre-1979 system of legal immunity for unions.

It is also pointed out by TUC loyalists that the more radical National Union of Mineworkers and FTAT furniture union thought the composite motion was far too mealy-mouthed for their taste and simply declined to support it.

The favoured proposition says that TUC policy should be 'in line' with a resolution on employment law adopted by Congress delegates in 1991. The left, however, points out that the original amendment tabled by the right- wing AEEU engineering section urged delegates to 'reaffirm' the policy. After much lengthy debate, the right allowed the reaffirmation to be watered down. The phrase 'in line' with previous policy was seen to be acceptably vague by most on the left and to leave a loophole to exert pressure on the Labour leadership.

Left-wingers also took comfort from the wording which seems to limit the ability of a Labour government to interfere in union rule books. It reads: 'Congress calls for the right for unions to determine their own rules in accordance with ILO conventions on freedom of association.'

The resolution is a sign that the old conflicts within the union movement are bubbling below the surface even though the left is far less powerful than it used to be.