Unions seek deal with Labour

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The Independent Online
Tradeunion leaders are drawing up an election manifesto that will restore their role as "social partners" with a Labour government, writes Paul Routledge.

The unions want to revive national links with Cabinet ministers through a "properly organised and public forum" on the lines of the National Economic Development Council abolished by Margaret Thatcher.

In a move that will cause furious Tory reaction, they argue that the foundations for a new relationship in industry and commerce are "already set in concrete" under the European Social Chapter that Labour is pledged to adopt. Union chiefs are also seeking a bigger role for pay review bodies in the public sector, opening up the prospect of conflict with a Labour chancellor over wages for hospital staff and civil servants.

Proposals for "the new relationship" are outlined in a draft of the manifesto written by John Edmonds, leader of the GMB general union, leaked to the Independent on Sunday.

In 1992, union bosses were asked to keep their heads down in the run- up to the general election. The GMB manifesto signals a new political confidence based on expectations of a Labour victory. Mr Edmonds puts his head above the parapet with a prediction that Labour will "level the playing field" for unions seeking to expand. He proposes "new institutions" to deal with macro-economic questions as well as bread and butter issues, and warns that social partnership will not thrive if a Blair government only meets union leaders in secret talks to solve an industrial crisis.

Mr Edmonds's proposals emerged as John Monks, general secretary of the TUC, said in a New Year message that unions would have to break "the habits of opposition" in dealing with a Labour administration.

In the draft manifesto, Mr Edmonds says:

"Brian Mawhinney will soon launch his final salvo against the enemy the Tories most love to hate - the unions. 'A return to strikes, public sector pay explosion, wage inflation, unemptied bins and idle production lines.' It will all come spewing out of Smith Square. The picture of 'I'm all right Jack, beer and sandwiches with union barons' will churn through the media mincing machine, distorted for political advantage.

"But there is a real question. The 'Contentious Alliance' between Labour and the unions has been a defining relationship in British policics. It is blamed for the downfall of the 1964-70 government, over In Place of Strife, and it was blamed - with more reason - for discrediting the last Labour government over the 1979 Winter of Discontent.

"Will we get it right this time? The foundations of the new relationship are already set in concrete. They are European. It has taken the EU to bring British management up to date. The Social Partnership model - on which the Social Chapter is based - is already, through European Works Councils, bringing unions and management together.

"Social Partnership is not beer and sandwiches. It is not tripartite compromise, and it is not based on the idea that the unions (or bosses) can decide how the country is run. That was corporatism, and it failed.

"This is enlightened dialogue. Social Partnership is based on the simple idea that, in areas of legitimate interest, government can ask - nay, tell - unions and employers to sort out problems. The first commandment of European industrial relations is: 'Thou shalt reach agreement.'

"I do not believe that British management are prepared for the political consequences of a change of government. Labour ministers know what to expect from union leaders.

"But the third Social Partner is not ready. The CBI [Confederation of British Industry] is split from head to toe on the key issues facing us all: the single currency, the minimum wage, the Social Chapter, works councils and pay policy. During friendly discussions with business leaders, Labour should ask a few hard questions. How will management respond to the invitation to be a social partner? Most managers will be thrown into confusion.

"The GMB blueprint lays down priorities:

n Training. Labour needs the unions' help on this central plank of economic policy, which could hit the rocks if awkward bosses are not willing to do their fair share. A Labour government might recognise that we can play a useful role in persuading recalcitrant bosses to update the skills of British workers.

n Pay. A Low Pay Commission will look at the minimum wage.

Pay review bodies in the public sector will serve a similar and probably enhanced role as broader questions of modern terms and conditions are addressed - childcare being an obvious need.

n Disputes. Heavy competition, continuing high unemployment and high housing costs mean that strikes are about as popular as Douglas Hogg at a farmers' convention.

"Workers are not willing to sacrifice wage packets today for peanuts tomorrow. Nowadays, if there is a strike you can bet your union card that there is a justifiable cause.

n Partnership. The National Economic Development Council (Neddy), which so symbolised Seventies corporatism, has been abolished and it is very unlikely to be replaced. But Government will need to meet the Social Partners in a properly organised and public forum. In training and on macro-economic questions, the European model and if Labour's economic policy is to work, there will have to be new institutions.

"Social Partnership will not thrive if government only meets companies and trade unions at Christmas receptions and in secret talks to solve some industrial crisis.

"With the CBI split, and Labour wanting to draw Tory fire, these questions will probably not get much airing before the election. But if Britain is to match the economic success of Japan and our European partners, we must plan for a future of co-operation and joint problem solving.

"Social Partnership is the way forward. The most important industrial issue for the next Labour government will not be in the Cabinet's relationship with the unions.

"The attention now is on Labour's relations the unions. But with Labour wining and dining business, the real question - which is blindingly obvious to trade unions - is: are the bosses up to it?

"When even pounds 4 an hour sends panic round the 19th golf hole, can we rely on our employers to have the vision to succeed?

"The Labour modernisers have placed workers' future in the hands of business."