Forward thinking

In 2003, British trade unions made their voices heard on a number of different issues. Trades Union Congress general secretary Brendan Barber outlines the 2004 agenda

Q How do you see the TUC’s agenda priorities for 2004?

2004 is clearly an important year just in terms of the political cycle. People are starting to think ahead to a national election, probably in 2005, so clearly there’s been a lot of thinking, beginning within the Labour Party and within the Government about priorities for the future.

I think our overarching concern is that we want to see an agenda for the workplace, and during this second term, I think there’s been a feeling there hasn’t been such an agenda. There hasn’t been a clear focus on measures to improve what working life means to people.

One of the issues we think needs attention is improving the opportunity for workers to be genuinely consulted about major change – clearly, we’ve got the new information and consultation regulations being shaped at the moment, so we hope that will give a boost in that area. Taking that issue forward constructively is a key issue.

We want to see measures that are about improving the quality of working life, and in this area, I include issues around working time; there’s no doubt that people feel more and more under pressure, and find it increasingly difficult to balance the demands of work and family life, and the way working time is organised in this country is one of the key dimensions to that.

Pensions There’s a real sense of crisis at the moment that our occupational pension system is in retreat. An increasing number of people are being denied the opportunity to access a decent occupational pension scheme, and there’s clearly a lack of confidence in our future pensions arrangements. That needs to be tackled urgently.

We’re very concerned at the continued exclusion of workers in small firms, employing 20 or less, from the [trade union] recognition procedures. We think that’s a wrong-headed exclusion.

Another key issue of concern is that we’ve seen evidence of some employers using unacceptable intimidation tactics to prevent workers exercising a free choice on recognition. And enhanced protection for people who put their head above the parapet to campaign for the union in a recognition campaign seems to us to be well-merited as well. I’m hoping that on that issue, the Government will be willing to see whether we can reach some understanding on improving protections in that area. We will make our case very strongly.

One other issue is the question of workers being able to be dismissed eight weeks into a lawful dispute. We will press the Government to think further about whether there’s a change that could reasonably be made.

Q There has been considerable high-profile trade union activity over the last year. What does this reflect?

I think there is a sense of greater confidence and assertiveness around trade union work. I think that reflects some of the frustrations I’ve described about some of the pressures of working life. If you look back at the British Airways dispute, which attracted a lot of attention, that was a dispute not about money, but about time. People felt that yet again, they were going to have encroachments onto their efforts to get a reasonable work-life balance.

So on some of these issues, I think there is a greater concern that’s been manifesting itself in some of these disputes. Having said that, it would be wrong to characterise what has been, to use the old cliché, a return to the ‘winter of discontent’ or something of that sort. The abiding position remains that workers don’t want to go into dispute unnecessarily.

Q How is the TUC’s Learning Services programme developing?

There have been about 400 projects supported by the union learning fund that reach into more than 3,000 workplaces, with initiatives to open up new opportunities for workers to access new programmes to develop their skills.

Another key element of its success is that thousands of people have taken on the role of union learning representative – there are now more than 7,000. All our projections are that the numbers are increasing rapidly and before the end of the decade, we’ll probably have between 20,000 and 30,000.

One of the great things about this work is that it draws people into taking on that active role on behalf of fellow members that wouldn’t have been interested in a traditional workplace representative role. We have many more women that take on the role of learning rep, and more younger people, and it gives them a really challenging, stimulating and interesting opportunity to do something of value for their colleagues in the workplace. It gives them the confidence to take on a bigger trade union role. I think anything that draws people into becoming a trade union activist has got to be good news for us.

It’s really imaginative, positive work – the trade unions are demonstrating a value to members and potential members in new ways in an area that’s clearly of huge importance to people. In an uncertain world, there’s no better guarantee for the future workers than to have skills that strengthen their position in the world of work and labour market. Now we’re thinking about how we can develop this further, whether there are any ways we can project the value of this work. So that’s certainly an important priority area for us as well.

Q It sounds as though the trade union movement is primed for a period of revitalisation, is that so?

There’s undoubtedly that potential. We’ve seen our membership stabilise over the past three years after a long period when membership was in decline. But the real challenge is to become a growing force again – not just holding steady. To do that, we need to reach out to people in new ways. We need to demonstrate the job that trade unions can do for people who work, on issues that really matter to them, and that the quality of working life issues and skills are hugely important.

Unions are not just about ritualised, annual pay negotiations. They’re about everything that impacts on what work means to people when they get up in the morning, and how good they’re going to feel about it, and making them feel better, and achieving change that makes people feel better about their work. There’s a much bigger goal for trade unions than just haggling over pay rises.

Some of the old images that trade unions are about – to use a colourful description – ‘male, pale and stale’ middle-aged white men, are not been keeping up with the reality. The reality has been changing. So, yes, we’ve got to reach into new expanding areas, we’ve got to demonstrate we can do the job for people whose jobs are predominantly technology-based, maybe. I’m confident that we can do that.

Q Looking internationally, the Department of Trade & Industry has undertaken a study on offshore outsourcing. How is the TUC approaching this controversial practice?

It’s a very important issue, but it’s not a new one. Inevitably, a union faced with that kind of proposition, its first instinct has to be to look to protect the interests of members who may be adversely affected, and to look to defend any jobs as best it can.

Where decisions are made to outsource, one important responsibility for a union is to represent the interests of the workers in Britain, but also to ensure that there are proper standards for workers in the other parts of the world to which functions may have been transferred and to ensure that a new operation isn’t being based on exploitative labour conditions.

For a long period, we’ve had a friendly relationship with Indian trade unions. I think the contacts will be strengthened as a result of the way this debate has been moving.

Q It would seem as though unions’ global reach and ability to better communicate with union colleagues is increasing. Does the expansion of the European works council concept into the UK mean, perhaps, a greater Europeanisation of how unions here operate?

That’s an oversimplification. There’s a pull between a US and a European model. The European model recognises the idea of social partnership and the idea that there should be a strong standard of rights and responsibilities as a basis for managing change in the labour market.

The US model is more Wild West, so to speak, and we’re looking to push British business more towards acceptance of a European kind of model. The Information and Consultation Directive is a particular key issue in this regard, because unlike some of the other things that have come from Europe – better rights for part-time workers, better rights in the area of parental leave, for example – those have been about putting in a floor of entitlements for individuals. The ICD is about recognising that the workers collectively ought to have a voice at work, an opportunity for that voice to be heard, and the need to have mechanisms to ensure that voice can be heard.

So it’s a challenge to march past British business because the evidence suggests that there are huge numbers of enterprises in which no genuine sort of consultation of any sort takes place. So a lot of our employers are starting from a low base. It’s going to be a big challenge to the culture in a number of areas. But I’m hoping that they approach it positively and don’t view this as just a tedious burden that has to be shouldered, but they actually recognise that this is something that potentially is going to be a real benefit to them – not an impediment to a high-performance workplace, but a vital ingredient in building competitive success.

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