Date: Fri, 12 Sep 1997 17:22:43 -0700
Sender: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
From: Sid Shniad <shniad@SFU.CA>
Subject: Blair chastises British unions (fwd)

Join the real world, Blair tells unions

By Philip Webster and Philip Bassett, The London Times, 10 September 1997

The Prime Minister told the trade unions in stark terms yesterday that they must cast aside dogma and join the real world if they were to have a role in creating a modern enterprise Britain.

He made plain that union leaders had no automatic influence over a Labour Government, and he warned them that they risked being left behind unless they came to terms with the challenges of a more competitive world. They must shed old-fashioned attitudes, modernise their political structures and accept new responsibilities.

Tony Blair's uncompromising speech to the TUC conference in Brighton was the first by a Prime Minister since 1978 and, as such, the ovations he received were to be expected. But much of what he said was heard in uncomfortable silence and some union leaders objected strongly to his words. One said: We don't want threats. The Archbishop of Canterbury, who backed the principle of workers' rights in his speech earlier, won a more enthusiastic reception.

Mr Blair's speech amounted to a general call to all British institutions to modernise, but it was plain that the union movement was at the top of his list of candidates for reform.

Labour would keep its promise of legislating for union recognition where most workers wanted it, he said, but he urged unions to reach voluntary agreement with employers. We will not go back to the days of industrial warfare, strikes without ballots, mass and flying pickets, secondary action and the rest. You don't want it and I won't let it happen. And I will watch very carefully to see how the culture of modern trade unionism develops.

He then directly slapped down John Edmonds of the GMB, who had attacked his insistence on employment flexibility. Mr Edmonds had said that he shivered a little when he heard Mr Blair using Tory phrases. Mr Blair tackled him head-on: We will keep the flexibility of the present market. And it may make some shiver, but I tell you, in the end it is warmer in the real world.

The unions should follow the Labour Party in modernising their political structures, he said. Influence with this Government and with me is not determined by anything other than the persuasiveness of your arguments. The old ways resolutionitis, the committee rooms, the fixing, the small groups trying to run the show have no future.

Labour and the unions must not repeat the past mistakes of heavy-handed state intervention, nationalisation, industrial conflict, but instead build a true enterprise economy where we face up to the reality that we must be adaptable, flexible and open to change. If they did not make Britain a country of successful businesses that had the edge over its competitors, they would be betraying those they represented.

The unions should be creative, not conservative: Let us make it impossible to dismiss trade unions as old-fashioned, defensive, anti-progress and activist-dominated. We have nothing to lose but our dogmas. So let us lose them.

Delegates' response to the speech was mixed. John Monks, the TUC General Secretary, said that the Prime Minister had been well-received, though he accepted that he had a hard message, while Tony Young, of the communication workers, welcomed the call for the unions to join the Government in its modernisation programme.

The Unison leader Rodney Bickerstaffe said: With the Archbishop's speech, it was a good day for the unions. But Davie Patton of the Fire Brigades Union objected to being told to join the real world, and said: We don't want threats. That's not partnership.