TUC faces battle over call for general strike
The Guardian: September 6 2008
David Hencke, Westminster correspondent
· Hardliners angry ministers blocked leftwinger's bill
· POA refuses to withdraw 'embarrassing distraction'
Restoring secondary picketing powers for the unions has been an important cause for the left but has been rejected by Gordon Brown. Photograph: Frank Baron
Hardline unions are set to split the TUC next week with a motion calling for the first general strike since 1926 in protest against Labour's refusal to give back secondary picketing rights and allow prison officers to strike.
The Prison Officers Association has angered the TUC council by calling for a series of one-day general strikes in protest at ministers blocking a leftwing Labour backbencher's bill this year which would have restored many of the union rights taken away by the Conservatives in the 1980s and 1990s.
It will be backed by the RMT rail union, led by Bob Crow, which has organised a series of strikes on the London Underground and in national rail companies over wages and conditions this year. Other unions such as the Fire Brigades Union and the Public and Commercial Services Union may support it.
Restoring secondary picketing powers for the unions has been an important cause for the left. The issue was raised by Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of the country's biggest union, Unite, during talks on future Labour manifesto commitments at the Warwick policy forum in July. But Gordon Brown has refused to respond to the union demands, telling journalists that "there will be no return to the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s" over concessions to trade union laws.
John McDonnell, the Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington who was author of the failed bill, said: "We intend to reintroduce the bill and table amendments to the government's existing employment bill to give trade unions more rights.
"The TUC bureaucracy have always been lukewarm in support of this, but we think that it is even more relevant that trade unions have more power to organise, given the dire consequences of the recession that will lead to more layoffs and privatisation."
The POA motion accuses ministers of "political sabotage ... to ensure the bill fell" and of taking "even more draconian legislative action to stifle unions". The motion caused conflict at Thursday's TUC council when members instructed Brendan Barber, the general secretary, to ask the POA to withdraw it to prevent an embarrassing distraction for the media. But the union has no intention of doing so.
If the motion goes ahead at Brighton next week it will expose a divide between unions over the tactics needed to win trade union law reform. It will also fuel Tory charges that the government is under constant pressure to give way to demands from Labour's paymasters.
Barber said yesterday: "Given all the other more serious issues that need debating, from low pay to working conditions, this motion is self-indulgent. I have been asked to request the POA to withdraw it."
The POA general secretary, Brian Caton, said: " We believe that the need for new rights for trade unions is supported by tens of thousands of workers and that we have got nowhere so far in negotiations. Jack Straw's decision to introduce tougher legislation banning prison officers from going on strike has angered our members and we have no intention of backing down over this."
The row comes during a difficult week for Labour with the chancellor, Alistair Darling, and Brown both due to address the congress.
Barber said yesterday: "Many union members are very angry about public sector pay being limited to 2% while inflation is nearly 5% and it would be in the government's own interest to change policy."
He praised the London mayor, Boris Johnson, for backing a London living wage of £7.45 for the poorest workers in the capital, nearly £2 above the national minimum wage of £5.52. "He deserves the credit for introducing it, although the Tories don't deserve any credit for never backing a minimum wage in the first place."
Barber also said he thought David Cameron was taking a positive step in arranging meetings with the TUC to hear their views. His strongest criticism was reserved for John Hutton, the business secretary, who "made him cringe" when he backed the case for more millionaires and whose department was "a one-sided ministry that just championed business".