Sunday September 14, 2003
Anyone hoping for a rapprochement between business and Britain's newly-assertive trade unions at the TUC conference in Brighton last week can forget it.
Just as relations between the recently elected core of leaders and the Government drifted further apart as Gordon Brown's speech ground on, so, as the week progressed, bosses and brothers spun further out of the orbit of industrial partnership that held them together under the moderate ancien regime .
GMB general-secretary Kevin Curran, who got things off to an ill-tempered start by branding as 'whingers' employers who threaten to move overseas because of red tape and low skills, summed up the mood by the end of the week.
Tony Woodley, general-secretary of the Transport & General Workers Union, accused Digby Jones, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, of 'selective amnesia' in blaming the 'bad old days' of industrial strife solely on the unions. He questioned his commitment to fair employment protection laws, saying he was insufficiently condemnatory of such practices as sackings by text message. Meanwhile, Derek Simpson of Amicus, the engineering and professional union, said: 'Digby Jones says that we belong to the past, but he is the one who belongs to the 1970s.'
'The Government and business are beginning to recognise that the unions are being much more assertive,' he said. 'We have been a force for good in the past 150 years and we are not going to be lectured to. We are going to be doing the lecturing.'
On the key issues debated - protecting jobs, pensions, information and consultation, and repeal of anti-trade union laws - the gap between unions and business gets wider.
Business did not shirk a confrontation. Jones may have called for co-operation, praised modern trade unions, and even admitted that middle management was often not up to much, but in an uncompromising performance he rebutted Curran's 'whingeing' charge. He emphasised the need for less regulation and warned of a 'causal link' between 'inflexibility' in the workforce and unemployment and a return to the bad old industrial past.
Indeed, the CBI believes the opportunity to take its message direct to delegates was one it could not miss. Jones's deputy, John Cridland, said: 'Digby Jones was politely received, which is an indication that it is possible to have a civilised debate.
'There has been no change in the message from business, but the big difference is on the union side. There has been some strong and personal rhetoric. If you make comments about business leaders going offshore I am not sure how that helps the workers of Britain.
'I don't think that some of the messages we heard reflect the real debate that should be taking place and I don't think they have reflected on whether they represent the priorities of delegates. Some views they are putting across are from a bygone era.'That is language guaranteed to get right under the skin of leaders who campaigned by putting their members' interests first.
Simpson says: 'Digby Jones talks about partnership and one would have difficulty opposing that. But his members don't deliver. He talks about wild-cat strikes and our control over our members, but appears to have none over his. "Partnership" means the gaffer telling you what he is doing, and that's that. It means nowt.'
Simpson argues that for Jones flexibility really means ease of hiring and firing in the UK, which is why businesses invest here. 'I think Digby Jones does an excellent job of saying business is overregulated and overtaxed whereas the reverse is true - we are lightly regulated and businesses are profitable.' He believes that with stronger employment protection laws businesses would still invest, but for the long term, putting funds into training, plant and infrastructure.
But a line in Brown's speech saying there would be no backing down on the pro-enterprise agenda leads him to conclude that Jones has been successful. 'The Government listens to Digby Jones more than it does to us.'
Woodley has similar worries. Prepared to concede that the Government has made some progress, he nevertheless argues: 'Government should listen to the people who spent time trying to get them into power, rather than big business, which spent 16 years trying to keep them out.'
He argues that the eight-week rule, which allows workers to be sacked after eight week on strike, should be ended. He cited the case of car components maker Friction Dynamex, whose US owner used the eight week rule to sack workers, and then responded to a successful challenge through an employment tribunal by putting the company into administration and changing its name, before administrators sold it to a former manager.
'We have to put pressure on for further changes in employment law to stop this kind of thing happening. We have to go on the attack here. If Digby Jones is saying he is up for fair treatment, this kind of thing is not acceptable. He should be supporting us - this is the difference between good business and bad business.'
In other areas, Woodley believes the Government should have gone further. The Pension Protection Funds, reannounced by Brown on Tuesday, should be retrospective.
Action should be taken to dissuade companies from leaving the UK when it is only a matter of 'corporate greed'.
Woodley cites Dyson, the vacuum cleaner and washing machine maker that moved production to Malaysia: 'They had a successful product, then moved it to Malaysia. What a way to thank the workers.' Woodley believes there should be tariffs on Dyson products imported to the UK.
'We are not anti-business as a union,' he says. 'My record is for getting grant aid into businesses. Let's not get selective amnesia about this so-called member of the awkward squad. I am just a member of the frustrated squad.'
The CBI should have difficulty with that one. Of all union leaders, Woodley probably best understands what makes business work - through his negotiations in the car industry, particularly over the Rover crisis. But the CBI is not going to accept more than it has to on pensions, the eight-week rule or other repeals of Tory legislation, such as the ban on secondary action demanded by unions.
Cridland says: 'Secondary action is a strongly felt issue for the unions. It [repealing Conservative laws to prevent it] certainly would fill business with a lot of worry. But I don't think it reflects the view of the rest of the country.'
Woodley and his colleagues say they are interested in the same things as business - partnership and so on. But their definitions differ from business's much more markedly than did those of the men they succeeded at the top of the union movement. They also argue for tougher tactics for getting their way. The question, is will the new-found unity hold? If it does, there is likely to be more confrontation with business in future.