We need unions as much as ever

The Tory recipe of low pay is not the way to treat a modern workforce, argues John Prescott
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The Independent Online
In 1954, I picked up my first union card as a teenager setting out for a life at sea. Ten years as a merchant seaman were to teach me lessons which still hold good today.

Facing the intransigence of ship owners, I learned how trade unions were able to correct injustice in the workplace and how this could inspire social and political change. To realise that change, legislation was needed; that's why I became a politician. But I understood also that there was a clear distinction between industrial and political action.

Both the Labour Party and the trade union movement have changed dramatically. We still have traditional values, but we now put them in a modern setting. While it has undergone fundamental changes, the union movement is as relevant now as it was when I joined it. Last Wednesday, I chaired Labour's Opportunities for Business conference. We made clear Labour is open for business. But the business community encompasses both the boardroom and the shop-floor - employees as well as employers.

The most valuable asset a company has is its employees, a fact recognised by almost everyone but Britain's Tory government. Social partnership means enhancing the skills and performance of all employees. The challenge for government is to find a framework that achieves social justice at work and helps us to compete with the rest of the world. We can't compete on sweatshop wages. We have to compete on people's skills.

Far too often in the Britain of the 1990s, good employers are undermined by the bad. You can read about it almost every day in the papers. The small engineering works, where 11 out of 12 production workers joined a union because of fears about asbestos, yet the management still refused to negotiate an agreement. The young man who was paid less thanpounds 1 an hour at a fast-food store.

This is Britain in the 1990s, where a million people are paid less than pounds 2.50 an hour; where employees work the longest hours in Europe; where 2.2 million employees have no entitlement to a paid holiday.

The Tories seem to think that employees are best motivated by a cocktail of low pay and insecurity. Except for "fat cat" directors who apparently need to award themselves the tonic of higher pay - in some cases, up to pounds 300 an hour!

The most successful businesses are those which harness the motivation and potential of a valued, skilled and fairly rewarded workforce. That's why Labour will sign the European Social Chapter on minimum standards at work. That means measures to protect parents from being sacked for looking after their newborn children, and large companies consulting employee representatives - things most good companies do already.

A TUC poll, published today, shows that a majority of the public, including many Tory voters, want to sign up to the provisions of the Social Chapter. An even bigger majority support a minimum wage. In America under Bill Clinton, 10 million new jobs have been created in four years with an increased minimum wage.

A Labour government will not be able to satisfy everyone's desires. The figure for the minimum wage will be set only after a Low Pay Commission has considered views from all sides.

But we will offer a new approach which recognises that employees have a stake in their work, that their safety must be respected, that minimum standards can improve work relations.

Employees should be free to join a union and be represented by a recognised union for collective bargaining when a majority support it.

There is overwhelming public support for the job trade unions do - four out of five believe unions provide vital protection for many people at work ... And some 7 million people are members of trade unions - many times more than all the political parties put together.

Some of the changes which happened in the 1980s were for the good. Many unions did so anyway, but now all unions hold postal ballots before taking industrial action. But the Tories have left British workers the least protected of any in Europe.

Complaints to industrial tribunals have doubled in the past decade to more than 80,000 a year. Many people have to wait more than a year to have cases heard. This is no way to secure justice. How much better to allow people a voice at work to sort out problems at source.