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Tuesday, 10 September, 2002, 13:31 GMT 14:31 UK
Why unions are militant

The mixed reception that Tony Blair is receiving at the TUC this year has many causes.

It is the public sector unions - who now make up a majority of TUC membership - who are most unhappy with the government..

Open in new window : Trade unions guide
The big unions at TUC 2002

Public sector workers are in an angry mood, and the disputes over local government pay and with the fire service could be the beginning of a winter of discontent for the government.

The head of the fire brigades union, Andy Gilchrist, told BBC News Online that he believed his dispute would be won with the broad support of other unions and if successful, could be an historic turning point for the trade union movement.

Rodney Bickerstaffe, the former leader of Unison, who now campaigns for pensioners, is optimistic that a new generation of union leaders are coming through - elected to represent their members, and not afraid to speak up when necessary to those in authority.

But the growing militancy of the unions, particularly in the public sector, is rooted as much in economics as politics.

According to Tony Dubbins, the general secretary of the print union GPMU, the cause of the discontent is "the second term, frustration and ego."

Mr Dubbins told BBC News Online that workers were frustrated that after five years of a Labour government there had not been delivery of better services or (until recently) better wages in the public sector.

And the figures bear him out.

First, the wages of public sector workers have fallen behind those in the private sector.

The years of pay restraint under the Conservatives were followed by two years in which wages were held back under Labour.

It is only in the most recent pay settlements that public sector workers have begun to receive increases above inflation - but these have not made up the gap.

In addition, as Dave Coats of the TUC points out, there is growing frustration over working conditions in the public sector, which are increasing the discontent.

A recent survey of people who left public sector jobs showed they were also fed up with the increasing bureaucracy and tighter controls over their work by public sector employers who are pushing for reform of public sector working practices.

But there is another factor as well. The record-low unemployment makes it tempting for better paid public sector workers to move to more lucrative jobs in the private sector.

And then there is the battle over public sector reform.

For the first time in a generation, the government is pouring money into the public sector.

Tony Blair insists that the extra investment will only be available if there is also modernisation.

But public sector workers want some of that surplus to be used to improve their pay and conditions, bringing them back in line with the private sector, and helping improve recruitment and morale.

And they feel that after years of supporting the Labour Party, they deserve no less.

New left generation

The new militancy has manifested itself in several ways.

First, a new generation of radical or progressive union leaders have been elected, who have few memories of the 1979 Winter of Discontent that ushered in the Thatcher years.

Leaders like Derek Simpson of Amicus, Billy Hayes of the CWA, and Mark Serwotka of the PCS are less deferential to the Labour Party and determined to press grassroots demands.

Secondly, the long era in which there were virtually no strikes is coming to an end, especially in the public sector.

Thirdly, the unions are increasingly asserting themselves in the policy field, pressing the government to tilt further towards the unions in a number of areas.

The fact that the government enjoys a huge majority that it appears in no danger of losing any time soon also reduces any inhibitions the unions might have about increased militancy.

But ironically, that growing conflict could threaten a future Labour majority.

Alan Johnson, the industrial relations minister, has seen both sides as boss of the post office workers union, says that he hopes we don't return to the blame culture of the past.

Union leaders should be careful not to use the language of betrayal, and recognise that Labour has made real gains, he told the BBC.

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