Will beer and sandwiches at the Trades Union Congress change anything?

This week, the good, the bad and the ugly of the union movement gather in Brighton to lay their demands on the table at the Trades Union Congress. But which motions will cause the greatest pain for employers, and what are the chances of the unions actually getting their way?

Collective bargaining

The question of whether unions should be able to negotiate over company pensions is the big worry here. The DTI is looking into it, arguing that pensions “are becoming an increasingly important part of the bargaining and consultation exchanges between employers and trade unions”.

Employers’ bodies have pointed out that not all staff are represented by unions, and ask why a minority should have a controlling voice. The issue is further complicated by the fact that pensions trustees could be union members, creating a conflict of interest, and companies these days tend to offer a mixture of defined benefit and defined contribution schemes.

This is going to get very complicated if the government decides to press on, and won’t help get employers on side for future pension reforms. With any luck, common sense will prevail and the government will let sleeping dogs lie.

Agency Workers Directive

The government promised the unions it would support the EU Agency Workers Directive as part of the Warwick Agreement back in July 2004. The TUC claims UK temps have some of the lowest levels of protection in Europe, with no right to legal employment status. They want equal rights with full-time staff from day one.

But as one of the TUC’s own leaflets – Agency Workers Have Rights Too! – points out, there are plenty of rights for temps. From day one, they get the minimum wage, working time rights (including holidays, holiday pay and a limit on the working week), and health and safety and discrimination rights.

The government’s stance on the directive is best described as confused. A DTI spokesman said: “The government’s position remains the same in that it supports the underlying principles of the directive, but strongly believes it should not put employment opportunities or the successful development of the UK agency industry at risk.” Errr… right.

Protection for strikers

An early-day motion (EDM) for a Trade Union Freedom Bill has so far garnered the support of 182 MPs, and includes the right to take ‘supportive action’ for striking comrades. Otherwise known as wildcat striking, it caused disaster at Heathrow last year when Gate Gourmet workers walked out.

However, EDMs have a habit of falling by the wayside, and 182 is a small proportion of the 659 MPs.

The government has enough headaches without handing out more striking rights. In the first six months of 2006, time lost to strike action amounted to almost 664,000 days. This compares with 157,000 days lost for the whole of 2005.

The previous DTI secretary Alan Johnson – an old unionist himself – made it very clear that supportive action was not going to be allowed. Sensible man.

Equality reps and audits

The present government is all about equality, don’t you know. This is one of the big vote-winning plans. We have had the Women and Work Commission, and soon we’ll have the Commission for Equality and Human Rights. And let’s not forget the Work and Families Act.

Constitutional Affairs minister, Harriet Harman, is set to give working women more employment rights, and will announce new plans to this effect at the Labour conference later this month.

If you are paying women less for doing the same job as men then it would probably be wise to start sorting that out, as this is about as close to a dead-cert as we’ll get on the TUC agenda. And frankly, it’s the decent thing to do.

The beer and sandwiches rating system

Not really on the menu

A bit too difficult to swallow

Palatable, but needs to be chewed over a bit more

Service is good – should arrive soon

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