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Friday, 15 March, 2002, 17:04 GMT
Comrades no more?
Teachers on strike
Teachers in newly militant mood
UK prime minister Tony Blair's ever-closer ties with right-wing European leaders have pushed the trade union movement's patience with its old ally the Labour party close to breaking point.

Trade union gripes
Privatisation of public services
Manufacturing sector slump
The closure of final salary pension schemes
Government's pro-business stance in Europe
Trades Union Congress chief John Monks on Friday described Mr Blair's new alliances as "bloody stupid," and warned that unions are no longer prepared to act as the government's "long-suffering stooges."

He added that Mr Blair's increasingly pally relationship with the European right could cost the government the euro referendum and alienate core Labour voters.

Reports that Mr Blair intends to side with Silvio Berlusconi of Italy and Jose Maria Aznar of Spain in pushing a staunchly pro-business agenda at this weekend's European Union summit in Barcelona provided the immediate catalyst for Mr Monks' outburst.

The trio are expected in particular to oppose moves to increase European workers' rights, calling instead for more flexible employment regulations.

Stresses and strains

But in truth, the decades-old relationship between the trade union movement and the Labour party has been under increasing strain ever since New Labour came to power.

From the outset, New Labour's modernising thrust threatened to disrupt the previously harmonious relationship between the party and the trade union movement.

Tony Blair's appointment as Labour leader coincided with the introduction of One Member One Vote, a reform of internal ballot procedures which greatly reduced the influence of the union bloc vote at party conferences.

Bevan with Churchill and King George V
Union leaders like Ernest Bevin joined the War Cabinet

Mr Blair built on this initial reform by convincing the party to ditch Clause IV of its constitution, which committed Labour governments to nationalising the means of production.

Neither step was welcomed by trade union traditionalists.

Since coming to power in May 1997, Labour has won some plaudits from the trade unions, notably by introducing the national minimum wage and guaranteeing union rights to recognition in the workplace.

Both of these measures were election year commitments pushed through in the face of bitter opposition from business groups.

More recently, trade unionists have cheered the government's decision to step up spending on public services.

But the organised labour movement now feels that the balance of political favours has tipped overwhelmingly in favour of business during the Labour government's term in office.

Privatisation pressure

Top of the unions' current gripe list is the government's commitment to opening up the delivery of public services to the private sector.

Trade unionists argue that the privatisation programme forces workers recruited directly by private contractors to accept worse pay and conditions than employees transferred from the public sector on protected terms.

Some members of the powerful public sector unions express an ideological objection to the private delivery of public services.

Trade unions are also scathing of what they see as the government's neglect of the manufacturing sector, which has shed hundreds of thousands of jobs during the recent economic downturn.

At a conference last week, Mr Monks complained of "a sense that the government, with some brave exceptions, is resigned to (the manufacturing slump)."

Strike action

The pensions crisis is another major bone of contention, with union leaders raising concerns that a recent rush by employers to close final salary pension schemes will condemn future generations of workers to a penniless old age.

And, of course, Tony Blair's aggressively pro-business stance on the European stage is a frequent bugbear of the British organised labour movement, which is generally in sympathy with the EU's traditionally progressive stance on social issues.

The TUC has stressed that it is not contemplating a formal break with the Labour party, but it has warned that support for the government among rank and file members is "haemorrhaging."

And as recent events in the transport and teaching professions show, there is a risk that the movement may once again acquire a taste for 1970s-style strike action.

See also:

15 Mar 02 | UK Politics
Blair attacked over right-wing EU links
15 Mar 02 | UK Politics
Brown defends 'pro-enterprise' Blair
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