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banner Monday, 25 September, 2000, 14:18 GMT 15:18 UK
Unions make a comeback
TUC conference
Union bosses are flexing their muscles
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

When New Labour was still in its infancy one of Tony Blair's favourite soundbites was about the trades unions getting "fairness not favours".

He believed the party's links with the unions, its reliance on their cash and the popular image of block votes deciding policy had combined to help keep Labour out of power for 18 years.

There is no doubt the unions are making a bit of a comeback at the Labour conference

He was also keenly aware that the last Labour government ended with the politically devastating winter of discontent.

He was often attacked by union leaders for forgetting that the Labour party was their creation in the first place.

But, after almost two decades of Tory rule, they were prepared to keep quiet and "modernise".

But gradually, as a sense of disappointment in the government has grown, so have the unions started to flex their muscles.

This is a different union movement to the one that led the public services disputes in 1979 - the number of members in the manufacturing sectors has dramatically fallen with the decline in those industries, for example.

But membership rose by more than 100,000 between 1998 and 1999 and is now around 7.3 million.

Golden age

TUC general secretary John Monks was even moved to suggest recently that the unions were in a new "golden age," partly thanks to government legislation giving workers more rights.

It's still a long way from beer and sandwiches at Downing Street, but it's at least tea and biscuits

That may still appear slightly optimistic, but there is no doubt the unions are making a bit of a comeback at the Labour conference.

Tony Blair's attempts to attract alternative sources of income have either failed or, as in the case of Bernie Ecclestone, backfired.

And in the run up to the general election, he now needs the unions more than ever before.

He was happy to have them backing him against the non-union fuel protestors and he would like to see more of that sort of solidarity.

He needs them to persuade disillusioned core voters to rally behind his government.

And he desperately needs their cash to help him fight the campaign.

Tea and biscuits

Private meetings have taken place at both the TUC conference in Glasgow earlier this month, and at the Labour conference in Brighton with Mr Blair apparently seeking between 10m and 12m for his warchest.

But if the union bosses agree, and it is still a big if, there will be a price. The prime minister has already offered to make the ad hoc meetings with union bosses into formal quarterly sessions.

It's still a long way from beer and sandwiches at Downing Street, but it's at least tea and biscuits.

And now, at probably the last party conference before the election, the big unions are demanding big increases in pensions and the minimum wage, and pledges for greater rights in the workplace.

For the first time since the 1997 election, it appears the unions are ready to call in a few favours and even throw their weight around.

Talk from the likes of John Edmonds and Rodney Bickerstaffe about the pensions issue having the potential to sink the government's election hopes are clear signs they once again feel influential.

It is inconceivable that they would ever urge their members to vote anything other than Labour, but in Brighton they have also been showing that "fairness not favours" works both ways.

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See also:

08 Sep 00 | Business
TUC: decline and revival
08 Sep 00 | Business
TUC: a proud movement's past
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