John Edmonds dismissed government proposals to increase protection for workers switching jobs as "huge spin, but very little substance" yesterday. The general secretary of the GMB union warned the Prime Minister, who addresses the TUC annual conference today, he could expect a "rough ride" despite concessions on employees' rights announced by Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade.
Ms Hewitt revealed proposals for strengthening the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) laws. She said the Government had already made sure that rights and pensions were protected when public-service workers moved into the private sector, but conceded that the protection was not "working properly" when the same workers moved on to another private-sector firm.
Mr Edmonds was unimpressed. "None of the assurances that trade unionists were looking for – and were heavily trailed in the media – were forthcoming," he said.
GMB officials said the union's priority was for public services to remain in the state sector. "We are not just looking to protect our members," said one.
Dave Prentis, leader of Unison, the country's biggest union, declared that his members would not be "appeased" by Ms Hewitt's proposals. He welcomed enhanced provisions on retaining pension rights, but said Ms Hewitt's speech did not address the fears of unions, who are concerned that public services will be increasingly moved into the private sector. Unison had demanded cast-iron assurances, but received none. "Until we get categorical assurances, our objections remain. We will continue to campaign to keep public services in the pubic sector," Mr Prentis said.
The response by leaders of two of Labour's largest union affiliates puts pressure on the Prime Minister to give a detailed accountof the degree to which he wants state services delivered by business.
The reaction to Ms Hewitt's speech did not augur well for Mr Blair. The Trade Secretary's address was greeted with a ripple of unenthusiastic applause lasting less than ten seconds and in the middle of her low-key contribution Arthur Scargill, the left-wing President of the National Union of Mineworkers, called out: "It's like a museum in here."
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