JOHN HUMPHRYS: The trade unions in the
public sector have been getting more and more stroppy in these past few
months. The Fire Brigades Union is only one of them saying: they want
much more money and better conditions. Everyone remembers the so-called
bad old days of the seventies and wonders whether we might be heading in
that direction again. Certainly the bosses are getting nervous. They're
warning the government that they're going to have to stand firm... or else.
Paul Wilenius reports.
PAUL WILENIUS: Well before breakfast, the
working day's begun for successful businesswoman Sarah Anderson. She runs
her own employment agency. John Davis hasn't got a job, but he treats
his daily tasks as if he had. At dawn he's off to the picket line, as
he's done every day since he was sacked. Union leaders wants new laws
to protect him. Yet business leaders are worried this could hurt people
One of new Labour's greatest
successes was shedding its pro-union image and becoming more business friendly.
Yet here at the headquarters of the CBI, Britain's biggest business organisation,
doubts are starting to grow over the direction of the government. They're
worried that the rise in militancy could force ministers to give ground
to the unions over public sector pay, European employment rules, and more
rights for workers.
DIGBY JONES: If the government actually
start to accede to yet more union demands, in the boardrooms of Detroit
and Seoul and Tokyo and Johannesburg, overseas investors will start to
say, aye, aye, who's running the country? Is it the democratic elected
government or is it trade unionism?
WILENIUS: John's one of eighty-seven
workers sacked by the boss of the Friction Dynamics plant in Caenarfon,
which makes clutch and brake linings. They all lost their jobs, one day
after the eight week legal strike protection ran out. Eighteen months
later they're still on strike .
JOHN DAVIS: It's been very hard financially
and health wise for all the families. Cash wise it's been very hard because
all we've been getting is forty-seven pounds a week from the union - strike
pay. A picket line is one of the loneliest places in the world. You can
be standing here day in an day out. As you know we're here twenty-four
hours a day, day and night. It's open exposed wind rain, sun, we get all
the elements here. And when it's pouring down with rain morale can be very
WILENIUS: John belongs to Tony
Blair's union, the Transport and General. It's just one of a number of
voices demanding a re-balancing of the country's employment laws, so that
they give a fairer deal for workers .
GEOFFREY ROBINSON MP: The immediate pre-'97 election period
and immediately after that, there's no doubt that the pendulum probably
swung a bit too much in favour of industry. as it was bound to do as we
tried to find the balance, we had to first redress it.
DEREK SIMPSON: Well I do think that Mrs
Thatcher's laws should be confined to the dustbin of history. I think they
did no service whatsoever, they certainly changed the balance, the pendulum
swung very much in favour of employers.
WILENIUS: The firemen's dispute
is the darkest cloud so far on the industrial relations horizon. The firefighters
want a forty per cent pay rise, with no strings. The Deputy Prime Minister
has been dragged into the pay talks. It's reported there's already sixteen
per cent on the table. However, a string of high public sector pay awards
like this, could swallow up a large chunk of the government's big public
ALAN JOHNSON MP: We're determined that that will
not happen, but we're determined to work with the unions as the Prime Minister
said at party conference, to work with the unions to improve public services,
they have the ideas, the experience, and in terms of how we channel this
money through, their input is going to be essential, but it cannot be and
I think the unions understand this, it cannot be a situation - it cannot
be right to channel that money purely into wages and conditions.
DIGBY JONES: Our message to this Labour
government is they must stand firm at this very crucial moment for the
British economy and for the future of the country. One because it will
be inflationary if they gave in to these enormous awards without it being
matched by productivity. And they've got to stand firm because actually
they were not elected to give in, they were elected to deliver better.
That needs more money but it needs reform. And I think the country itself
is actually watching to see how this one plays.
WILENIUS: Sarah's also watching
the government. She's concerned by the growing mountain of red tape she
has to deal with in her business. She doesn't want to be burdened with
even more bureaucracy. Together with the CBI she's against the government
applying a new European directive on information and consultation to a
small firms like hers. It could have a big impact on many businesses.
JOHNSON: Well we're having a discussion
at the moment about how information and consultation will work in this
country, we signed up to the directive in June 2001 having ensured that
it was not a one size fits all directive. We always made it plain that
we agreed with the principle of informing and consulting workers. It's
become an issue because workers at Vauxhall for instance heard they were
being made redundant over the radio. That's wrong, that shouldn't happen.
We will look at that aspect in terms of redundancy, we will clear some
of the myths that are around at the moment.
WILENIUS: Sarah's off to see one
of her larger clients. Indeed, it's many of the bigger companies who are
most worried. Under the directive they'd be forced to keep their staff
informed, especially when they hit stormy economic weather. The man who
negotiates with many of the UK's largest companies gives it total support.
SIMPSON: I think we should implement
the European directive in full. I mean we're part of Europe, we're being
told that that's where the destiny is, that's where we have to be, so what's
the equivocation about European legislation in this matter?
WILENIUS: Sarah is not the only
one who thinks her business needs less, not more regulation. Her fears
are shared by the CBI. They argue that if the directive is imposed in too
heavy handed a way, it could harm the economy and the country.
SARAH ANDERSON: The challenge of regulation now
is just phenomenal, there is both regulation in the pipeline, there's regulation
that's taken place that's particularly hit our industry.
DIGBY JONES: The impact of a poorly implemented
information and consultation directive, would mean that firstly businesses
would actually think that employing more people isn't worth it. Secondly,
they would actually have to implement it in a way that is awful for the
moral of a workforce. I mean imagine being told we're going to lose a
load of jobs in the next six months, I can't tell you who it's going to
be, but over the next six months I just want you to worry yourselves, while
we go through what this Brussels' directive has told us we've got to do.
ROBINSON: What I'd say to businessmen
who say we want a light touch or we don't want a review is that's too negative,
we live in a dynamic world, things do change, attitudes change and we have
to accommodate ourselves to what comes out of Europe.
WILENIUS: On the picket line in
Wales, John and his colleagues believe they're the victims of bad employment
rights laws, which have left them sacked and locked out of their own place
of work, for so long. The TUC backs them, and has put in a twenty-three
thousand word submission to government designed to stiffen their resistance
to the business case.
BRENDAN BARBER: I complain that too often they
listen too much to some of the bleating voices from employers about how
difficult some of these changes have been. And I'd like to see them be
bolder in taking forward a positive agenda for employment rights at work.
There's some unfinished business. When the Employment Relations Act
was carried through, it was recognised then that we were going to need
to look at how some of the provisions actually operated in practice. In
particular the new arrangements for Trade Union recognition. And we think
the first couple of years or so of seeing those provisions in action has
demonstrated that there are a number of ways in which they can be improved.
WILENIUS: Ministers would like
to take the heat out of this contentious debate and get both sides of the
nation's industry to agree a way forward. But there's little chance of
that. The unions are expecting action from a Labour Government, while business
leaders want them to do nothing which would damage the economy.
JOHNSON: Well we said when we introduced
the Employment Relations Act that we would review it after three years.
We are reviewing the Act, not things that weren't in the Act, not things
that people wanted in the Act but couldn't get in the Act, we are reviewing
the Act and how it's operated over the last three years. Now the TUC's
submission is quite long, that's nothing new, probably the CBI's submission
will be equally long.
JONES: We've been asked for our
views on this review of employment legislation and our review response
is very short but very meaningful and that is, leave well alone, let it
bed down and actually review it and do nothing.
WILENIUS: Ministers are working
with and listening to the unions and the TUC more and more recently, with
the support of many in the Labour Party. However, Tony Blair's advisors
are very wary about being seen to be getting too close to the unions.
They fear that business leaders are getting increasingly worried, that
this could signal a return to the bad old days.
JONES: When I saw a few weeks ago
only what was it thirty per cent of the tube drivers actually voted for
a strike, and then it paralysed eight million people. Well when a minority
driven on by a militant leadership can cause misery to millions of people
and put up a big sign that is adverse to the interests of the country in
those markets where we operate, I have to say you do worry about whether
we're heading off towards the discontent of thirty, thirty years ago.
And that would be seriously damaging to everybody in Britain.
SIMPSON: Now I'm still waiting
for a government minister to stand up and say, well Mr Digby Jones just
like they would do with Bob Crow, Arthur Scargill or anyone: you're talking
like an idiot, you're an extreme representative of an narrow band of people,
i.e. the employers with a vested interest and I'm sorry we're here to govern
for the people. The people in the main are many, many thousands and millions
of trade unionists, not just a few, handful of very rich powerful people
with the influence of the CBI.
JONES: It doesn't help when you
see Derek Simpson saying publicly, he's going to give the democratically
elected leader of this country a F-ing migraine. How do you think that
plays in a boardroom in Detroit, or Tokyo or Soul, which is where investors
in this country, wealth creators in this country, job creators in the country
make their decisions? And they do start to think, oh yes, are we going
back to the bad old days.
WILENIUS: For John, these are
the bad old days. For Tony Blair, there's little doubt he's got real trouble
ahead from the unions, unless he does more to keep them happy. But the
more he pleases them, the more he upsets industry and the more he risks
waving goodbye to his hard won special relationship with big business.