Unions demand deal for votes

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TRADE union leaders are discreetly negotiating with Labour Party chiefs terms for their acceptance of the end of Clause IV - a favourable new legal regime.

Top of the unions' shopping list of demands is repeal of the 1993 Trade Union Reform and Employment Act which requires all union members to sign up every three years for "check-off", the automatic deduction of subscriptions from pay packets.

"This is the most important change we need, and we have every confidence that Tony Blair understands our position," said a senior union insider yesterday.

The Act compelled unions to re-sign virtually all their seven million-plus members last year. They lost several hundred thousand members in the process at a cost of almost £30m.

Much ordinary union activity - negotiating, political work and so on - had to be suspended for many months, and TUC bosses insist that removal of this burden is top of their agenda. They are writing to Harriet Harman, Shadow Secretary of State for Employment, to tell her so.

Union support for Mr Blair's bid to rewrite Clause IV, Labour's historic commitment to state ownership, is critical because they still control 70 per cent of the votes at the special party conference in London on 29 April which will decide the issue. With many constituency parties, who have 30 per cent of the votes, lining up against abolition of the pledge, the Labour leader cannot deliver his reforms without the unions.

Private talks between the shadow cabinet and the unions take place through an informal contact group, and one union official said yesterday: "This will be the end of the modernisers' strategy of consigning the unions to the dustbin. They cannot rely on us for support, and then turn round and say we are not wanted. What you are seeing is Tony Blair coming to terms with the realpolitik of the labour movement."

However, union bosses are much more anxious to stay in business than to restore politically sensitive practices such as secondary picketing. In addition to the abolition of three-yearly check-off ballots, they want tax breaks that will bring them more into line with the rest of the voluntary sector - confirming the trend back towards old-fashioned friendly society benefits.

They also want to restore employees' rights - applying unfair dismissal safeguards from the first day at work rather than after two years - and, more controversially, they want to see early implementation of Labour's promise of a union's right to recognition if a majority of employees so wish.

A minimum wage, acceptance of the EU social chapter and restoration of union rights at GCHQ intelligence-gathering stations are already part of Labour policy.