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PFI, GATS and secondary action all up for discussion at the TUC

It gives an annual snapshot of what's on the minds of Britain's trade unionists, and the agenda for this year's TUC conference shows a union movement widely at odds with its Labour government.

September 1, 2003
5 min read

The agenda for the TUC’s 135th annual conference, to be held in Brighton from 8 September, includes attacks on flagship New Labour policies, such as Foundation Hospitals, and once again features condemnation for the government’s stance on Iraq.

Elsewhere, there are calls for the TUC to prioritise its campaigning work on pensions – a reflection of the number of workers” pensions hit by falling stock markets and the closure of company pension schemes to new members.

By far the most controversial proposal comes early on. In a move likely to alarm companies and the government, the Transport and General Workers’ Union calls for workers to be able to take part in secondary action – the right to walk out in sympathy with strikes in unrelated industries.

The Employment Relations Act comes under particular scrutiny. The RMT says that: “following six years of a Labour government the lack of progress in repealing anti-trade union legislation and supporting employment rights is completely unacceptable.” There are calls to reject any move to make arbitration in trade disputes compulsory, and for unions to be able to represent members irrespective of numbers at a workplace.

As always, the TUC agenda displays union worries over job losses in manufacturing. It includes calls for the appointment of a minister for manufacturing, the introduction of a 35-hour week, the implementation of European legislation on workers” rights to bring about a “level playing field in Europe,” and the revising of the remit of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee to take greater account of the manufacturing sector in setting interest rates.

Companies operating in the UK’s privatized sectors, including the rail and energy industry, are criticized for showing “little or no regard for the public interest.” The heads of such companies are slammed for receiving “large rewards that are wholly unjustified by their stewardship.”

In a sign that is likely to please global justice campaigners, there is evidence that trade unionists are becoming aware of the implications that the General Agreement on Trade in Services, currently under negotiation at the WTO, is likely to have on domestic jobs. UNISON shows its opposition to the “government’s policy of increased competition and private sector involvement in the delivery of public services,” and agrees with the critics of GATS that it will threaten UK services “by exposing them to world-wide competition.”

As has become routine in recent years, there is opposition to the government’s PFI policy, including calls for the strengthening of workforce protection and introduction of fair wages clauses.

Foundation hospitals are roundly attacked by UNISON and the TGWU, including criticism for the lack of consultation over this key government reform, and concern that Foundation Hospital Trusts will create a two-tier NHS where “elitism and excellence for the few replaces universal provision and excellence for all.”

The argument that Foundations Trusts will democratize the NHS is dismissed. They will instead “undermine democracy and accountability by ensuring a greater role for the private sector and by shifting responsibility for [Foundation Hospitals] from the Secretary of State to an unaccountable regulator.”

There is alarm at signs in this year’s Budget that pay remits for public sector workers are to include a stronger local and regional dimension. The Public and Commercial Services Union opposes moves towards “unjustified” regional pay, and calls for the maintenance of national pay rates and national pay bargaining for public sector workers.

The government is given a range of ideas for legislation to deal with the pensions crisis. Among the proposals floated in the TUC agenda are minimum compulsory employer contributions to workers’ pension schemes, and employer pension insurance to ensure scheme members are not deprived of benefits by failing discontinued schemes.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers condemns the government’s proposal in a Green Paper to raise the public sector pension age from 60 to 65. There are also calls to re-introduce compulsory saving for retirement as “the only way of guaranteeing adequate levels of pension in the future.”

The main government minister who will be taking on delegates at the conference will be Chancellor Gordon Brown. However, he is unlikely to be the only figure preparing himself for a hostile reception. Digby Jones, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, will also be speaking at the TUC. He launched a pre-emptive strike, telling the BBC Today programme: “I wish trade unions would fight today’s and tomorrow’s battles and not yesterday’s.”

“It’s a real shame that the attitude seems to be “no, no, can’t, shan’t”, instead of saying “how can we improve skills and literacy and how are we going to stop jobs leaving the country?””

The presence of Digby Jones in Brighton will be only the third time that a CBI director has spoken at the TUC annual conference. His intervention is reflective of worries in government and industry at the new generation of more militant union leaders.

The “awkward squad”, or “New Left Majority” as they prefer to be known, have openly called for a review of political funding of the Labour Party by the union movement. Union leaders such as Billy Hayes of the CWU and Bob Crow of the RMT were also strident critics of the government’s invasion of Iraq at anti-war meetings.

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