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Thursday, 12 September, 2002, 05:37 GMT 06:37 UK
Unions flex their muscles

An energised union movement is preparing to give the government and business a tougher time in the future.

That was the message from the TUC conference in Blackpool, which has seen the emergence of a new generation of "awkward squad" union leaders who are prepared to back the concerns of their grassroots members rather than listen to the preaching of Tony Blair.

The new mood was reflected in various ways at the conference, by the sullen silence which greeted the speech by the Prime Minister, by the close votes over Iraq and the euro, despite strong lobbying by the TUC hierarchy and their Labour allies, and by the deeply felt concern expressed over the privatisation of public services.

The new mood is not one which is prepared to break the link with the Labour Party, however upset they are with its policy.

Rather, they want to return the party to its roots, and are looking to support Gordon Brown were there to be a leadership challenge.

As former Unison general secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe told BBC News Online, "we gave them 100m to keep Labour afloat and they gave us the war in Iraq."

Although in the end the TUC made a show of unity with the government on this issue, anger runs deep over the dominance of UK foreign policy by the United States.

But what the unions want is more influence in the Labour government, and further concessions on the privatisation of public services and greater union rights in the workplace.

They are as confused as the rest of the country on where they stand on the euro.

Although the powerful T&G union has come out against the government having a referendum on the single currency, T&G general secretary Bill Morris told BBC News Online that if Gordon Brown said the five economic tests were met, the T&G would then back euro membership.

Nevertheless, if the government were to move towards calling a referendum, the public sector unions, who now make up a majority of TUC membership, would have trouble supporting euro membership, fearing that it would mean Brussels mandating cuts in public spending.

And the TUC has now committed itself to its own recall conference to consider the issue before agreeing a position if there were a referendum.

New generation

The most important factor however, is that a new mood of militancy is sweeping the public sector workforce, and a new generation of union leaders is prepared to give it full sway.

TUC general secretary John Monks told BBC News Online that the new leaders were certainly producing "fireworks" as they tried to make their mark, and it would interesting to see how they "bedded down" in the TUC.

Meanwhile, discontent has been growing among public workers who are fed up by years of pay restraint, deteriorating working conditions, and growing red tape, as well as the threat of privatisation.

The militancy shown by the normally placid local government workers this summer is a harbinger of trouble for the government, a "tinderbox" waiting to explode, according to Unison's Malcolm Wing.

The wide support at the TUC given to the fire services dispute, a group of workers who have fallen far behind their colleagues in the other emergency services in pay, is another indication.

If there is a fire brigades strike which causes severe disruption to the public, it could lead to further alienation between the unions and the government, especially if there are sympathy strikes by rail workers on the Underground.

Who's in charge

But it is not the most militant leaders like Bob Crow of the RMT or Mick Rix of Aslef who are most characteristic of the new generation.

Rather it is Derek Simpson, the newly elected general secretary of the giant Amicus union, who is most representative of that new generation.

Along with Dave Prentis at Unison, he seems prepared to try and shift his union away from its traditionally loyal support of Labour to a more questioning stance, whether on the euro, on public service reform, or on Iraq.

A chance moment summed up the moment of transition.

It occurred as early one morning as Bill Morris and Derek Simpson did side by side standup interviews for rival breakfast television shows.

As Mr Morris, who finished early, stood listening in somewhat surprised admiration to the rather candid words of Mr Simpson, he turned to him and said, "I guess we will have to let you in the tent soon."

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