Bill Morris, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, made clear his organisation would have no truck with any administration that continued the present government's freeze on wage bills.
Public-service unions have been told informally by shadow ministers that they should not expect any immediate change in the approach under a Labour government. In turn, party figures have been warned in private that they should expect outbreaks of industrial action.
Mr Morris said the union movement had understood the oft-repeated message that there would be "fairness, not favours" if Labour came to power. "The T&G reply is a simple one: 'We do not expect any favours and will give no favours'."
He said the next Labour government would be approached like any other employer and would be judged by its deeds. There would be no co-operation with pay policy in the private or public sector: "It is interesting that at the first whiff of a Labour government, a few academics emerge from obscurity to make the case for a pay policy. I can tell you the T&G's attitude towards pay policies: we've been there, seen it, done it and it does not work. And we are not having it."
Addressing a T&G conference on minimum standards at work, Mr Morris coupled his wages warning with a reinterpretation of consecutive Conservative governments. "Some on the left of British politics say that the last 17 years have been wasted years. For us in the T&G they were also learning years." The union's communications and democracy had been improved. "In a nutshell, we have learned to turn arrogance into confidence."
He acknowledged his comments constituted "a defining moment" in the history of his union. Five years ago, a left-backed union leader such as Mr Morris would have been called to account by his union backers for such revisionist remarks.
His union's relationships with management could be summed up in a sentence: "We cannot compete on the basis of conflict." It was necessary to improve competitiveness and improve the conditions of union members.
There was a desire for companies to succeed and an acknowledgement that workers needed to be flexible as well as to enjoy job security.
He warned, however, that while the T&G was committed to work with the good employers, it would not hesitate to oppose the bad.
Ian McCartney, the Labour Party employment spokesman, told the conference that unions would have a "valued role" under a Labour government, which would draw up its policies in partnership with industry. A Blair administration would ensure that unions would be recognised in any organisation where there was majority support, he said.Reuse content