Leading Article: Divorce may lead to happier unions

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The Independent Online
THE TUC has been slow to overcome an illusion that it could be an almost equal partner with government. For nearly 15 years it has, like Miss Havisham, failed to accept reality. At Congress House it has maintained a large and cumbersome bureaucracy meant to support a corporatist marriage that is long past. Countless committees have beavered away on advice to ministers that has passed rapidly across Whitehall desks and into wastepaper baskets.

John Monks, the new general secretary, has at last made moves to rescue his organisation from irrelevance. Yesterday he set out plans to streamline the TUC and focus its energies on industrial rather than political issues. At the same time he signalled that the TUC - many of whose early leaders were closely identified with the Liberal Party - will distance itself from Labour.

Mr Monks has seen the future: his movement needs to enter dialogue with all the political parties, including the Tories, that compete for office.

These changes are essential if trade unionism is to be modernised. Employees want support from organisations that campaign on problems that have made working life increasingly insecure. Safety, pension rights, protection from sudden, unfair dismissal, contract negotiation, grievance procedures: these are the bread and butter issues that concern employees. Collective bargaining is well down the list of their requirements. Even more remote from their interests is what the TUC thinks about international relations or defence.

Nor are they particularly attracted to trade unions that back Labour - polls show the party link to be the single most important reason given by employees for not joining a union. In seeking contacts with other political parties, Mr Monks has taken his cue from Europe. There the separation of unions from formal party politics is an article of faith virtually everywhere except France.

The Italian unions, which engineered such a divorce a decade ago, have thereby been saved from recent scandals. A similarly timed move in Britain might have rendered unions here less impotent under Margaret Thatcher. It would, as a by-product, also have made the Labour Party more electable.

In short, Mr Monks has recognised the problems and reacted to them. As union amalgamations continue, leaving only a few super-unions, he knows that the TUC must prove itself useful, rather than merely a redundant top layer of bureaucracy. Yesterday's changes are a start. Yet the question remains whether the TUC will do too little, too late to save itself.