At last, the tide is turning for trade unions

Millions want to join up. And most people think the boss has too much power, says John Monks
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The Independent Online
This week in Blackpool Britain's trade unions will set themselves the challenge of reaching out to the new insecure world of work. Our membership has fallen from more than 12 million to less than seven million since 1979 and we are determined to halt that slide.

That is why this year's congress slogan is "new unionism - organising for growth". New unionism is the same name given to the movement that saw trade unionism break out from its craft base to recruit unskilled men and newly employed women at the end of the last century. This is no easy challenge. We know that changes in the world of work have made our job more difficult, but also more necessary.

Britain's trade unions remain staunch supporters of Europe. What is wrong with Britain today came from across the Atlantic, not the Channel. Deregulation, welfare slash -and-burn and tax cuts for the super-rich are not the Brussels way.

Politicians may hope that decisions about EMU will go away, but however difficult the issue it has to be confronted. On balance, however much we might prefer the circumstances to be different, Britain will be better off signing up to the single currency, rather than pay a heavy price in jobs and prosperity for remaining outside.

One in seven of us has known unemployment since the 1992 general election and one in three will work part time by the turn of the century. Five million earn less than pounds 4 an hour.

Yesterday we released market research showing that up to 5 million people at work today are not union members but would like trade unions to negotiate on their behalf. Our message to these union wannabes is that we want non- union Britain to share the benefits of union Britain. Half of all employees are in workplaces where unions are still recognised. Eighty-five out of the top 100 British companies negotiate with unions. Unionised workplaces have better training, fewer redundancies and less labour turnover.

Responsible employers are dropping their knee-jerk opposition to minimum standards at work. Each survey seems to show a further swing towards support for such reforms as a minimum wage. No British firm compelled to establish a European works council because of operations in Europe has taken advantage of the UK opt-out to exclude their domestic workforce.

Our aim this week is to build an alliance with good employers against the bad. Proper minimum standards protect the employer seeking long-term success from unfair undercutting. Today, those that train find their staff poached by those who don't.

But this is not to say that everything is perfect in unionised workplaces. This year's congress will also explore what the stakeholder agenda should mean for employees. We will be discussing how we can rise to the challenge set to us by Gillian Shephard at a TUC conference to work with employers to promote training in every workplace.

So far I have not dealt with what is always supposed to be the main story of every TUC - our relations with Labour and our wider political stance. This is deliberate.

Our most important relationship as trade unions is with our members and those at work. Second come the employers with whom we negotiate or seek to do so. Only then come our political relationships. So while I am now reconciled to it, it still makes me angry to see every TUC treated by many as little more than a dress rehearsal Labour Party conference.

In any case, our most pressing problems are with the current government. Brian Mawhinney, the Conservative Party chairman, wants to get tough on unions in the mistaken belief that this will be electorally popular. Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, is still keen to abolish employment rights for those who work in small firms. Defeating these plans form our immediate political objectives.

Longer term the political horizon is bright and promising. I take nothing for granted but an election is likely to bring the near universal government hostility to trade unions to an end.

Labour's proposals do not always go as far as we would want, and no doubt some will say that this week. But Labour does promise a decisive break from when we have had to score our goals playing uphill while the other side changed the rules as they saw fit.

Indeed, the poll we published yesterday shows Labour has nothing to fear from these policies. I know some in Labour are keener on promoting what they do not say, rather than what they do. I understand fears that people will believe Tory propaganda that Labour only supports new employment policies because unions do.

But such policies are popular even with Tory voters. Most people think power has swung too far towards the autocratic boss. They want Labour to offer a level playing field and will see the party's employment rights package as a fair set of workplace rules with valuable new rights for every employee. And we know that in practice they will only be made reality by union action.

We have set ourselves the task this congress of returning to our roots, by going out and organising. Labour's proposals won't do this for us. We will still have to make the case for trade unionism. But when we have recruited and organised, employers will have to listen. That will make it that much easier to make the case for trade unionism. And that's fine by me.

The author is secretary general of the Trades Union Congress.