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Friday, September 11, 1998 Published at 17:10 GMT 18:10 UK

From militancy to partnership

Strikes - have they been consigned to history?

After decades of conflict, the TUC and the business community seem to have buried the hatchet. Favouring dialogue despite disagreement, the TUC feels bold enough to talk of a new unionism.

Two years ago, John Monks became the TUC's first general secretary to speak at the Confederation of British Industry's national conference.

His presence heralded a watershed in industrial relations. Not to be outdone, Adair Turner, head of the CBI, spoke at the TUC's conference last year. One motion was ambitiously entitled "Partners for Progress".

The reciprocal gesture did not pass unnoticed. Suddenly, there was talk of a broad consensus on a number of fundamental issues between the two sides.

The new unionism is welcomed by David Metcalf, Professor of Industrial Relations at LSE. "Both sides have really got their act together recently and both have outstanding leaders.

"They have held discussions on difficult issues such as the minimum wage, although they still disagree. The problem they face is translating this Cupertino to the management levels in firms and workplaces," he said.

Closer Ties

So, were unions witnessing an emergence of that very continental term, social partnership, or was it all just a false dawn?

Monks the moderniser reiterated the need for close relations with companies in light of the wave of EU regulations affecting small businesses.

According to a survey published last year by Dibb, Lupton and Alsop, the employment lawyers, over a quarter of some 50 trade unions have adopted a no strike policy towards employers.

[ image: John Monks: first TUC general secretary to speak at a CBI conference]
John Monks: first TUC general secretary to speak at a CBI conference
But it was Labour's victory that strengthened the alliance between them..

Within days of the election, the CBI and the TUC held informal discussions on the minimum wage, the single currency and union recognition.

They issued a joint report on union recognition, which was presented to Margaret Beckett, then President of the Board of Trade.

It set out areas of agreement but also areas of disagreement. Union recognition is one of the most contentious, but in the past year, there has been more than a whiff of compromise on both sides.

As one TUC spokeswoman said: "At the beginning the CBI were completely opposed to recognition but there were many areas on which we could agree."

A new social partnership?

What is certain is that both the CBI and the TUC quickly recognised the need for greater dialogue after the icy relations of the past twenty years.

Even more so as the "social partnership" plays such a major role in European Union policy.

Britain's decision to sign up to the EU's Social Chapter, with its raft of employment legislation, can only underpin the need for the two to work together.

Mr Monks and senior union leaders have been keen to mediate between government and companies by ensuring the EU social agenda does not undermine efficiency, competitiveness and profitability.

Employers for status quo

But there is still strong scepticism and a lack of interest by employers in any notion of social partnership.

Tim Melville-Ross, head of the Institute of Directors, wrote in the magazine of the Involvement and Participation Association: "The EU model of social partnership is still an alien concept to many UK employers."

But these are new times under New Labour, and the TUC's less confrontational nature can only help matters.

Dr Stephen Dunn, an expert in trade union law, said: "The TUC's less confrontational stance with employers chimes well with New Labour.

"Both the TUC and the CBI are inherently weak, so any alliance between them can only strengthen their influence."

Monks says there are significant areas of agreement with the CBI that already existed under the Tories, citing issues such as health and safety, training and equal opportunities.

Both sides are now anxiously awaiting the proposals in the government's much awaited "Fairness at Work" report, expected to appear this autumn. Neither expects another winter of discontent.

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