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Beware the Fossil Tendency flexing its muscles

I HAVE been a member of four different trades unions in my lifetime. Most of the ordinary trades union members I know are not activists. But I understand how trades union leaders often feel about their members.

The rank-and-file's attitude to trades unionism is almost precisely the attitude that most people have to serious journalism on television: it's not really for them most of the time - but thank God it exists in moments of crisis.

So far, there is hardly a workers' revolt over the government's White Paper Fairness At Work. Few union members are probably aware of it; and even fewer want to think about it. They are content to trust that the Blairmobile knows where it is going, and that the destination will be good for Britain and good for them. But there is a lurking contradiction in the Government's stance which may herald the first signs of the wheels coming off the bus.

Mr Blair is no fool. He knows he still needs union backing to deliver many of his plans. Labour Conference resolutions, for example, may mean little to New Labour; but they still have the power to make business nervous. The Conservatives claim that the unions gave Labour pounds 110m during the opposition years, and with the prospect of endless political campaigning for local, regional, national and European tiers of government, no Labour leader can afford to dampen the unions' enthusiasm for the People's Party.

But you don't have to be cynical about it. The family-friendly workplace with provision for parental leave, the right to claim unfair dismissal earlier than at present, and the abolition of the ceiling on awards for unfair dismissal all represent an extension of individual rights of the kind that Blair has talked about frequently.

Broadly speaking, the thrust of the reforms is to encourage workplaces to recognise new patterns of work which involve frequent changes of job, and the need to make time for families. The package will also give trades unions a push towards focusing on the individual rather than the collective rights of workers. This is in some ways inevitable, given the trend towards individual contracts. The overall tone of the White Paper should endear the Prime Minister to his union friends.

But the administration, as in so many areas, has been at pains to stress its difference from previous Labour governments. One manifestation of the Third Way is that the party of Labour is no longer the prisoner of the unions. Nor its leader, it appears, in any way constrained by his own pre-election promises.

The row over the threshold proposed for union recognition is no accident. Ministers are proposing that the unions must have 40 per cent of the workers voting "yes" before recognition takes place. This is an idea which the CBI likes, which is fine, except that it isn't what Labour said during its election campaign. It is also an enormous hurdle to recognition.

At first the threshold looks like a democratic safeguard. But this may not be the way it works in practice. The very first bit of serious politics in which I was involved was the Grunwick strike in the mid-1970s, where a factory boss refused to allow the (mainly female Asian) workers to be represented by the Transport and General. Long before this became a cause celebre, the management of the company made strenuous efforts to persuade the women that any backing for a union would identify them as troublemakers. The aim was not to get them to be anti-union, but to be neutral.

In the circumstances there was no difference between someone who said "no" and someone who said "I don't know". Under the Government's package, a smart employer, faced with a ballot will not need to go through the aggravation of locking workers out; he or she will just encourage workers to ignore the whole business. Far from encouraging democracy, the 40 per cent threshold will turn out to be a charter for apathy.

The spin put on the threshold issue has made it seem more important than it really needs to be. The fact is that any workplace with more than 50 per cent of workers in union membership will have to recognise the union without a ballot. Unions will have the automatic right to represent individual workers in grievances and at tribunals, and those individuals will be free to join a union.

The strategy for most unions in most places will be to pick up members one by one until recognition becomes automatic. That, I would guess, is how it will happen in the majority of workplaces. However, the threshold provides the platform for grim set-piece battles of the old-fashioned kind.

Who wants to return to the days of unions accusing bosses of intimidation, or to introduce the sight of sharp-suited "consultants" wandering the corridors and the floors explaining to workers that they would be better off talking to their bosses individually and separately from the unions? The result could be a return to some of the unpleasant industrial stand- offs of yesteryear which gave unions a bad name, and frightened managers into being pathetic doormats.

Even if there are no battles of this kind it will still leave the mass of trades union activists - even those prepared to give The Third Way a chance - with the feeling that this is a government unsympathetic to their cause.

We can already hear the Fossil Tendency flexing its leathery muscles in the Labour movement. The sort of shock we saw in the recent Aslef election where an Old Labour leader was deposed by a Fossil Labour challenger, who belongs to Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Posse is thought to be a one-off. I would not be so sure; the activists are already suspicious of New Labour. Every alleged betrayal edges them closer to hostility.

Is this really what Mr Blair wants? I doubt it, unless some deranged spin doctor has convinced him of the need to create a small and easily crushable enemy to haul out in times of political embarrassment.

Whatever the strategy, the price of reawakening the Fossil Tendency in the trades unions looks just too high to pay. Labour can't afford it, and nor can the country. The threshold is not that important; during the bill's passage through Parliament, a magnanimous concession would avoid a messy, unnecessary sideshow.