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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 September, 2003, 14:32 GMT 15:32 UK
The role of the unions: Ask TUC general secretary
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber answered your questions from the annual conference in Brighton.



New TUC boss Brendan Barber has criticised the government for being too ready to listen to employers "bleating" about red tape.

In his first speech to congress since becoming TUC general secretary, Mr Barber said unions had a responsibility to tell the government when it had "got it wrong".

He also said that now is the time for a new chapter in union and government relations adding that he hoped the public services forum - agreed with the prime minister - would be a "new way of working together".

Can unions influence the government's public sector policies? What role should unions play in the 21st century?

You put your questions to TUC general secretary Brendan Barber in an interactive forum.


Transcript


Branwen Jeffreys:

Hello and welcome to this BBC news interactive forum. I'm Branwen Jeffreys. We're here on the third day of the TUC conference in Brighton. After several days of very lively and vivid debate, we heard from Gordon Brown yesterday warning workers not to ask for inflation-busting pay rises. We heard from Tony Blair last night - a slightly controversial speech to union leaders - we're not quite clear on how strong his message to them was. And this morning we've been hearing from public sector workers who want the Government to listen a little bit more to their arguments about reform. Brendan Barber is here with us. He's chairing his first conference as head of the TUC. We've got some questions from people who've been watching the debates with quite a lot of interest.

First of all on Gordon Brown's speech and he reference to pay. Andy Pearson, Southampton asks: What do you think of Gordon Brown urging union members not to take pay rises without giving the same sort of message to company directors who award themselves substantial pay rises?


Brendan Barber:

Well Gordon's got a reputation for always concentrating on prudence and I'd guess you'd expect him to say - look we can't have over the top pay rises and so on. So I don't think anybody would be surprised at that message.

But I think Andy's made a fair point here. One of the real problems we've got is the huge excess of the kind of rises we've seen from people at the top. We're not going to deliver really high quality public services unless all public servants feel decently valued. So ok, we hear his message about not wanting to risk economic stability but we've got to have arrangements that provide fair pay for everyone who delivers public services.


Branwen Jeffreys:

You had Digby Jones here from the CBI as well. He was promising that bosses should set an example on both pay and pensions. What are you going to be doing to hold him to that?


Brendan Barber:

The problem is Digby's not able to deliver that. I'm not doubting his good intent but unless there's some requirement for companies to operate in a different way, I think we're just going to carry on seeing the same thing happen. Even the company meetings that we've seen where shareholders have voted against some of the excessive executive pay packages, those votes aren't binding. So the board of directors can still carry on even though a majority of the shareholders have voted against the arrangements. So we need to see changes in the law if we're going to really see a pressure for employers to stop these outrageous kinds of increases.


Branwen Jeffreys:

Now we've heard a lot this week about the need for even strong protection for people at work. Kevin Barrow, London asks: Should the rights of British workers, which the TUC wants to see strengthened, be protected by more Government measures, more trade tariffs and wouldn't that just lead to jobs going abroad with big multinationals moving to cheaper countries?


Brendan Barber:

I don't think we can go for trade tariffs. But we do think that our legislation here ought to match up to the kind of standards that we see certainly right across the rest of Europe. There's this very strong feeling that British workers are the easiest to sack. If a major multinational company has plants in Britain but also perhaps in France, Germany, Italy and Scandinavia - if they're making a judgement about where perhaps do we need to make cutbacks - they'll too often pick on the British operation because it's too easy to lose people here. So we think that in areas like that our arrangements ought to match up to the rest of Europe.


Branwen Jeffreys:

John in Birmingham wants to pick up perhaps on one of those points. You say British workers are easy to sack. He's concerned about the over 55 year-olds, who often find themselves first in the line for redundancy. What's the TUC doing to try and strengthen their protection at work?


Brendan Barber:

We're going to have some new protections in the form of age discrimination legislation. This is something else that's come about as a result of pressure through Europe that's led to a European Directive - a European law being put in place and over the next couple of years, we've now got to put that into our legislation here in Britain. So that will begin to provide a new protection. I think he's absolutely right, this is an area where we've seen too many people lose out simply on the basis that they're a few years older than some of their colleagues.


Branwen Jeffreys:

And yet we haven't heard much about older workers here. I've heard a lot about the rights of 16 and 17 year-olds - the need for them to have a minimum wage. Why is it that young people get all the attention?


Brendan Barber:

I don't think they get all the attention - we've had very, very major debates on pensions issues for example and we'd like more young people to take an interest in pensions because this is their future as well, although sometimes it can be hard to persuade a young person to worry about what might be happening in 30 years time etc. But older workers, this is something that they're very conscious of - and more and more of them have seen employers walking away from their obligations and turning round to workforces and saying that actually that promise that we made - we're not going to be able to keep it anymore and your pension is going to be cut. So we're trying to address the issues that worry people right across the workforce - young and old alike.


Branwen Jeffreys:

Now the TUC's campaign this year is about the balance between working life and family life - a struggle that many people have - not to work too long. We have a question from Charles, London who asks: What's more important - protecting the rights of an individual worker to work the hours they choose, for example, if they run their own business or going along with new European legislation that would restrict that and has stopped people working the hours they want to work?


Brendan Barber:

People who run their own business wouldn't be restricted. The legislation doesn't apply to people in leadership positions with senior management roles and so on. We've got a big problem - we've got millions of people who work long, long, long hours. British workers work some of the longest hours in Europe. Now in Europe it was agreed there should be a general 48 hour limit - there can be flexibility in that every week doesn't have to be 48 hours but over the year, people ought not to be working more than that on a regular basis. The rest of Europe can abide by that - why can't we provide that protection to British workers as well? They're rather more productive in many of the other European economies - their productivity is very much better even though their workers work shorter hours.


Branwen Jeffreys:

Now we've been hearing an awful lot this week - not just from yourself but also from other trade union leaders about the need for the Government to listen more to trade unions. Carl, Cambridge says: Why should you influence government policy when you represent one slice of the population - just a few million people out of a population of 55 million?


Brendan Barber:

We represent around 7 million people and that's a pretty big slice. And those members of ours work right across the economy - they work in the private sector, the public sector, manufacturing industry, service industry, the public services. We're the most representative organisation in this country. We're the largest voluntary organisation. Now any government really ought to be wanting to listen to people who've got something to offer when they're thinking about policies. We've got insights, experience to reflect - any sensible government ought to want to take advantage of that knowledge and that experience.


Branwen Jeffreys:

John Edmondson, Newcastle has a question many people want answered: Do you think higher taxes are the way to better public services?


Brendan Barber:

No, I'm not saying I want to see higher taxes. I want to see higher growth. I want to see a really successful British economy in which our firms are operating on a world class level and are competing so that we're generating the wealth that we need to provide for higher living standards for all. If we do that - if we got our productivity levels up to the levels of the major countries in Europe and the United States, for example, we'd have an enormous amount of extra wealth that would then be available to fund the improvements we want to see in public services.


Branwen Jeffreys:

Margaret Town, London has been doing a little bit of digging around on your own website. She's been looking at the information about previous congresses. And the numbers according to your website, have been steadily falling, she says. Is that a trend which is continuing? There are fewer delegates here than ever before.


Brendan Barber:

With delegates - we're up around the same as we've been for the last two or three years and union membership has been stable for the last two or three years. Of course I'd like to see it growing. But manufacturing industry in particular is one of the areas where jobs have been disappearing at an incredibly fast rate - over 10,000 jobs a month - and an awful lot of those are union members. So we need to see trade unionism reaching into some of the newer areas of the economy where jobs are growing and I think we've got real opportunity to go for growth.


Branwen Jeffreys:

Tony Blair made it very clear that the Government is not going to blown off its agenda for reform. Jack Delawney, London says: One of the key reasons why Labour was elected was because they appealed to middle England - to the middle ground - and they can operate independently from the trade unions. They're not just listening to your interests - isn't that a problem? Do you really think they should be listening to you more?


Brendan Barber:

I don't think it's a problem - I wouldn't suggest that they should only listen to us.


Branwen Jeffreys:

Couldn't they lose support from that crucial middle ground?


Brendan Barber:

I don't think so. I think on many of the issues that are sharply in the public eye at the moment - actually we represent the middle ground. Yes, a real determination to see improved public service. But for millions of people whose support is needed to deliver that are the people that work in those services. Now the idea that you can just set that to one side and say that's somehow in conflict with middle England - I just don't think that's right. We're broadly representative. We're looking to see many of the things achieved that the Government want to achieve. And if we have a bit more dialogue then I'm hopeful that we'll begin to reach a bit more understanding.


Branwen Jeffreys:

Well on the subject of dialogue, Colin Hynson, Norfolk wants to know that given the poor state of the TUC's current relationship with the Labour Party, are you going to be talking to the other parties during the conference season?


Brendan Barber:

We always do. The TUC always goes to all the party conferences. The TUC is not itself affiliated to the Labour Party - we don't fund the Labour Party, we're not involved in their internal affairs. Some of our unions are, of course - those unions that have made it their choice to affiliate. But the TUC's always had relations right across all the political parties and will always do so.


Branwen Jeffreys:

Brendan Barber, I'm afraid that's all we have time for. Thank you very much for joining us here on this News Interactive forum. From all of us in a very windy Brighton at the TUC conference, goodbye.




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