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Unions wary of undermining Labour

Source: Reuters - Fri 18th Sep 2009

Trade unions are likely to shy away from strikes in the run-up to an election next year to avoid further weakening the Labour Party, which they help to fund.

However, differences between the Labour leadership and the unions mean the party's cash cow could ultimately curtail its support unless workers win more influence over policy.

Unions gather at the annual Trades Union Congress (TUC) next week faced with the prospect of a more hostile Conservative government, years of public spending restraint and as many as 1-in-10 out of work in the run up to the election.

Leading Labour party figures are expected to address the conference in Liverpool at the start of a busy autumn, when they attempt to reverse poor poll ratings and maintain the hold on power they have held since 1997.

Unions leaders recall 1978/79 when public sector strikes saw rubbish pile up on the streets in a "Winter of Discontent" that helped to propel Margaret Thatcher to power with a mandate to tame organised labour.

With that in mind, this TUC conference is likely to see a truce aimed at slowing down the seemingly unstoppable march of the Conservatives ahead of an election due by next June.

"We won't be announcing any strike action (at conference). There's no getting away from it - it's a difficult period ahead" said Alex Flynn of the non-affiliated Public and Commercial Services Union which supports civil service workers.

Trade unionists helped to found the Labour Party in 1900 and unions still supply more than half of the party's donations, according to the Electoral Commission. 

"While unions will want to contest the cut-backs affecting their members, the trade union hierarchies especially will not undermine the government even further" said Andreas Bieler, professor of political economy at the University of Nottingham.


Record government borrowing resulting from the recession and extensive public support for the banking sector will require a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts for years to come.

That could mean job losses for many public sector union members and is likely to raise the threat of industrial action.

"It seems inevitable that the Tories will be returned to power now and they will seemingly institute a less favourable regime for unions," said Edmund Heery, professor of employment relations at Cardiff Business School.

Tight laws brought in by Conservatives resulted in a sharp decline in union influence. According to union figures, membership peaked at 12.2 million in 1980 but, by the start of this year, membership had fallen to 6.2 million.

Unions had hoped a Labour government, returning to power in 1997 under Tony Blair, would stem their decline, reverse those tough Conservative laws and give them a greater say over policy.

But Blair's New Labour believed that to keep big business on side it had to control the unions - resulting in a love-hate relationship that has left many union members disenchanted.

"I can remember how good we all felt when Labour came to power - it was almost an Obama moment - but it went sour," said Frank Hont, north west regional secretary for Britain's biggest public sector union Unison. 

"We have seen a clear divide between the Labour Party and the Labour government."

Many feel that Labour has done little to cultivate the trade union movement and alienated the party's grassroots by joining military action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are signs that the union funding that Labour has long enjoyed may be curbed if the ideological divide deepens.

In June, Unison union chief Dave Prentis - whose members donated about 1.8 million pounds to Labour last year - suspended some funding and said it would only support election candidates who opposed privatisation of public services.

That tactic could mark a longer-term shift.

"Over time, hopefully, trade unions will adopt a more independent position, supporting Labour only in exchange for the party's support of concrete union demands" said Nottingham University's Bieler.

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