Unions seek new rights from Labour

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The Independent Online
A blueprint for a new way of life at work - including rights to take time off to look after sick children, to strike without fear of dismissal, and job security for HIV-positive employees - has been drawn up by trade union leaders.

The programme, intended for implementation by an incoming Labour government, has been drafted by the Institute of Employment Rights, an influential think-tank set up by the unions. Among its leading figures are two Labour spokespersons on employment affairs, Lord McCarthy and Baroness Turner.

A confidential draft of the proposals was discussed recently at a private seminar of union officials. A policy paper will be launched in September.

The aim is to reverse years of Conservative curbs on workers' and trade union rights, which have left Britain with fewer than 50 per cent of its workers covered by collective bargaining, the lowest proportion in Europe. But some of the proposals are likely to make Tony Blair blanch and company bosses will protest that they would raise costs.

Labour is conducting a review of industrial relations law, headed by Stephen Byers, MP for Wallsend. He has told colleagues it will take a decade to achieve a fairer balance of power between employers and employees.

The document proposes:

Rights to paternity leave and "family leave" of up to four working weeks a year to look after sick children;

The right of trade union recognition for collective bargaining where a sufficient number of workers wish it, overseen by a Trade Union Representation and Recognition Agency;

Freedom for unions to engage in political activities;

The restoration of secondary industrial action where workers' "direct social and economic interests" are at stake;

Mandatory conciliation before anyone is dismissed;

Abolition of the upper limits on compensation for unfair dismissal;

A new Labour Court, with the same status as the High Court to deal with all disputes relating to employment rights;

Employers required to justify "economic dismissals" (due to financial exigency, for instance);

A whistleblowers' charter protecting workers who disclose information obtained in the course of their employment if they believe disclosure is in the public interest;

Protection from discrimination at work for "non-symptomatic HIV carriers, those wrongly suspected of being HIV-infected and people associated with an individual who is HIV-positive."

The blueprint, however, envisages keeping the Tory labour laws that require unions to hold secret ballots to elect executives and to hold strikes.

Professor Keith Ewing, professor of Public Law at King's College, London and research director of the project, said last week: "This is a constructive report to rebuild institutions and people's lives using employment law as one of the vehicles for this purpose. There should be a much more comprehensive framework of minimum standards for all people at work in the interests of social justice and job security."

The Institute's top figures, among them leaders of the big three unions - the Transport Workers, the GMB and Unison - have given general approval to the strategy paper, which is certain to form the basis of talks with Labour leaders in the run-up to the election. So far, the only concession they believe they have secured is a pledge to scrap the law requiring periodic employee ballots for "check-off", automatic deduction of union subscriptions from pay packets.