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Queen Speech Tuesday, 24 November, 1998, 19:30 GMT
Workers to be given more rights
Postal strike
Unions and employers have clashed on rights
Legislation to extend trade union rights has been included in the Queen's speech.

The Fairness at Work Bill is one of the most controversial measures to be introduced in the Queen's speech and has provoked a fierce battle between trade unions and employers.

The Queen's Speech
It will set up, for the first time, a legal framework for recognising unions and give individuals stronger rights against unfair dismissal at work.

And it will also promote family-friendly employment policies by setting out new basic rights for maternity and paternity leave and time off for family emergencies.

In a telling phrase, the aim of the legislation is "to establish a forward-looking balance of rights and responsibilities between employers and employees and will promote partnership at work."

But getting that balance will be difficult.

Ruth Lea, of the Institute of Directors, said that they remained completely opposed to compulsory recognition of unions and called the measures "anti-competitive."

But Ken Jackson, general secretary of the AEEU trade union, said "there is a grassroots concern that the certain provisions in the White Paper might be weakened."

Hard-fought battle

The government's employment legislation has been one of the most divisive and hard-fought issues that the Labour Party has had to mediate.

The battle-lines were drawn up as soon as the Labour Party won the election.

The victory inspired the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to push for new employment rights which they believed could help restore their fortunes.

Some employers' groups feared it will mean a return to 1970's-style trade unionism.

They were concerned that the legislation will give trade unions too much power and make the country's workforce less flexible and competitive.

But initially, the TUC seemed to have reached a deal with the main UK employers organisation, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), on the shape of the legislation.

Union recognition was to be granted if 40% of the whole workforce voted in favour.

And unions had been promised automatic recognition where 50% of a workforce belonged to a union

The government outlined its plans to reform employment law in its "Fairness at Work" White Paper last May after intense negotiations with employers and unions.

Change of view

But after their publication, opposition grew from the Confederation for British Industry, now under the tougher leadership of Sir Clive Thompson, chief executive of Rentokil Initial.

They hoped to persuade the new Trade and Industry Secretary, Peter Mandelson, to weak the provisions further.

Mr Mandelson told the TUC at their annual conference that he would be scrupulously fair in drafting the legislation.

But there would be no "favours" for the union movement.

Urgent talks

Fearing that the government was about to water down trade union recognition proposals in the White Paper, TUC General Secretary John Monks and other union leaders had urgent talks with Prime Minister Tony Blair last week.

They were concerned about recent speculation that changes are to be made so that workers will have to be in a union for at least three months before they can be counted for recognition purposes.

After the meeting, Roger Lyons, general secretary of the Manufacturing Science and Finance Union said that the White Paper was a "done deal" as far as unions were concerned.

"At this late stage, letting employers influence the White Paper would be like asking President Pinochet to design the human rights agenda," he said.

Ceiling for dismissal

Another bone of contention is the unions' demand for the abolition of any limit on compensation for unfair dismissal.

The CBI has urged Mr Mandelson to raise the limit from 12,000 to 40,000 but has insisted that the cap on the awards should remain.

They say they will be exposed to huge claims.

But Mr Mandelson is understood to be considering pay outs of up to 50,000.

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