Page last updated at 14:49 GMT, Friday, 5 September 2008 15:49 UK

The big issues facing the TUC

By Justin Parkinson
BBC News political reporter

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) is about to hold its annual congress in Brighton, amid concerns over wages, the economy, housing, workers' rights, rising inflation, pensions and taxes. What are the biggest issues likely to be?


The unions are strongly behind calls for a windfall tax on energy companies which have recently reported large profits, amid rising fuel bills. More than 80 Labour MPs have signed a petition calling for such a move, which the government is promising to look at. Meanwhile, Unite - Britain's biggest union and Labour's biggest donor during the second quarter of this year - is condemning a culture of "corporate greed", criticising the size of city bonuses. Tax avoidance by some wealthy individuals - a very hot topic at last year's congress - looks set to raise tempers once again.


The biggest flashpoint between the unions and Labour is set to be public sector pay. If anything delegates are arguing even more vociferously that last year's 2% settlement was wrong. They say rising inflation means living standards are falling "dramatically". Ministers say the settlement is needed to keep inflation down. The Public and Commercial Services Union wants a day of "national action" to push for a bigger pay rise. The Prison Officers' Association - 20,000 of whose members walked out last year - goes further, calling for a strike. Chancellor Alistair Darling can expect a rough ride when he addresses congress. Meanwhile, it is argued that too many private sector workers are being subjected to "performance management systems" to decide pay, job security and career development. Limited budgets mean there is not always genuine flexibility to increase salaries, it is said.


With Labour's debts at about 18m, the unions are now by far the party's biggest paymaster. Expect much discussion about whether the government is delivering enough to warrant such payments. In July, Labour's National Policy Forum - meeting at Warwick University - rejected calls to increase the right to strike, but voted to lower the starting age for the full national minimum wage from 22 to 21. The party and affiliated unions issued a statement saying the Warwick agreement was a "serious set of policies for the future of Britain". But Paul Kenny, leader of the GMB union, said there was a "herd of elephants in the room". These could include doubts about whether unions are being listened to sufficiently, and even the future of Gordon Brown - previously more popular among the union grassroots than predecessor Tony Blair - as Labour leader.


Despite the "agreement" at Warwick, the unions are pushing hard for an increased right to strike, which the RMT describes as a "fundamental human right". They are unlikely to back down. The RMT wants this included in the government's planned Bill of Rights. There is also widespread anger among delegates over a recent European ruling that strikes should only be allowed where there is "proportionality" - that is, where employers are seriously undermining workers' rights. Unions say this gives business more freedom, at the expense of staff. Ministers will have their hands full on this issue.


The government is being urged to increase the basic state pension immediately to at least 124.05 a week and allow people to "buy back" all of the National Insurance contributions they may have missed in the past.


The TUC is to vote on calls for greater enforcement of laws protecting workers' rights. In particular, the unions are demanding that all employees receive at least the minimum wage and receive holidays to which they are entitled. A motion to go before the congress also asks that unions get more powers to deal with vulnerable workers' grievances. People working in entertainment and modelling are described as "vulnerable" because of the extreme competitiveness and popularity of the professions. The same applies for those working for firms taken over by private equity companies, as their job security is undermined, it is added.


The unions are expected to keep up pressure on the government not to privatise services, review its "efficiency" programmes and to prevent the development of a "two-tier" workforce - that is, those working in the private sector and those employed by firms carrying out contracts. There is ongoing anger at private firms being able to sponsor academy schools and top-up fees in higher education. Lord Darzi's review of the NHS in England could pave the way for "fragmentation" and "marketisation", it is argued. The congress will also hear calls for the government to honour its 2005 manifesto pledge not to privatise Royal Mail.


State money for women on maternity leave is too low and should be based on people's average earnings, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers says. It also says that women who choose to take Additional Maternity Leave - which starts after 26 weeks off work - have a "less robust right" to return to their old jobs and that this must change.


The National Union of Journalists and the University and College Union say they are worried that government plans to introduce ID cards, restrict protests and increase pre-charge terror detentions threaten civil liberties. Academics may find it harder to research terrorist activities and journalists may be forced to reveal the names of sources, such as whistleblowers, it is argued. Unions also say the government should include trade unionism as part of the citizenship curriculum in schools.

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