LEADING ARTICLE: Mr Monks goes militant

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Few hearts automatically thrill at the prospect of the TUC's annual conference. Its complicated politics and arcane rituals cannot easily compete for attention with Damon Hill's latest clash with Michael Schumacher. But this year John Monks, the general secretary, has come up with a headline- grabbing opening move: to warn of a rash of strikes.

In his comments at the weekend, and again yesterday, Mr Monks spoke a language that could be understood by everyone. He predicted mounting militancy and industrial action against bad employers.

It is easy to understand why Mr Monks, though considered a moderate, should use provocative terms that bring back memories of industrial disruption. Part of his job is to tap and shape that deep vein of discontent within the workforce, particularly about job insecurity. Many employees, cowed by fear of redundancy, will be heartened by his tough talk. Trade unions might win a few more recruits.

But Mr Monks's remarks risk reinforcing the view that trade unions have not fundamentally changed in the past 16 years. In that period, trade union membership has fallen from 12 million in 1979 to 7 million. There has been an unprecedented period of industrial peace during the Nineties. But the suspicion is that unions are merely awaiting their moment to make an old-style comeback. Mr Monks confirmed these fears. As he said: "Unions and strikes have not gone away." Although as a fact this is unchallengeable, the effect is to blow smoke across the more reassuring message he has set out on our pages today.

This is a pity. Trade unions are important and valuable. Despite their decline, they represent more people than any other voluntary association in Britain. Employees need help in understanding their legal rights at work and in defending them. Equally, they find it very difficult to get sound, impartial advice on critical workplace issues such as pensions. Although unions have made some progress in developing services for members, there is room for improvement.

There are demands for an extension of the legal status of unions in order to allow them to reverse some of their decline. The signs are that Labour, in addition to accepting the EU social chapter and a minimum wage, will offer a legal right for unions to bargain collectively for a group of employees if, in a ballot, a simple majority voted in favour of the move.

This would be a step too far. It would risk imposing upon business a rigid view of how pay should be determined. And in reinforcing the idea that the primary role of the union is to engage in the annual pay battle it would encourage the movement to focus less upon members as individuals and more as a collective seeking to extract the best short-term bargain.

A better idea would be to to grant trade unions a more limited privilege following a ballot: the legal right to represent their members in individual disputes with management and to other consultation processes specified in European law. Employees, for example, should be entitled to bring a union official along when discussing conditions of work, disciplinary issues or threatened redundancy.

Mr Monks wants the trade union movement back closer to the centre of the political and economic stage. Mr Blair should respond with the greatest of caution.