Britain's once-powerful labor unions are in a muddle after nine years of exclusion from the inner circles of government. The unions have rejected advice from the leader of the opposition Labour Party and their own president to support the government's training program for the unemployed. The decision could leave the labor movement open to criticism that it is ignoring more than 2 million Britons who are out of work. And, it could bring to an end the movement's presence on the only government council - the one on training - in which it still holds influence.
At its annual conference, Britain's national labor federation, the Trades Union Congress (TUC), also expelled the renegade electricians' union for breaking its rules by signing single-union, no-strike deals with two companies last year. The expulsion could have launched a rival center of union power which would compete for membership with the declining fortunes of the TUC which has lost 3 million members since 1980.
Meeting at the seaside resort of Bournemouth this week, union leaders attacked the policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government.
In an unusually robust assault on government economic policy, Neil Kinnock, leader of the opposition Labour Party, ridiculed Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson's view that the British economy was ``fundamentally strong.'' Mr. Kinnock said that a strong economy does not loose large shares of its domestic and foreign markets to competitors, nor does it have 2.3 million unemployed (8.2 percent of the work force) and a growing balance of payments deficit.
Kinnock is a member of Britain's largest union, the Transport General Worker's Union. Although he was speaking to the group which gave birth to the Labour Party 80 years ago, the unionists rejected his advice on participation in the government's job training program. The unionists' vote to phase out their participation in the program over two years reflected the widely held view that the program was inadequately funded and represented a step in the direction of American-style ``workfare'' in which the unemployed must work to earn benefits while being paid at wages below poverty level.
The government's $2.5 million employment training program which began this week is expected to train some 600,000 unemployed people each year. After the TUC affirmed its lack of support, the Secretary of State for Employment, Norman Fowler, said that they would review the membership of the Training Council which oversees the program. Observers say this could mean removing TUC representatives from the panel and leaving them unable to reshape the program.
With the TUC's expulsion of the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union, Britain's labor movement may have developed the most serious split in its history. The renegade union was the first in Britain to sign a strike-free agreement with the Japanese company Toshiba in 1981 and last year defied federation rules by signing single-union deals with two British companies.
A TUC spokesman said the decision to expel the union was not merely a matter of a breach in federation rules, but a clash over policy and philosophy. Unionists have criticized the electricians for entering into ``sweetheart'' deals with employers and for changing their basic values by becoming a management-oriented union.
Eric Hammond, general secretary of the electricians' union, once said that he was seeking a fresh approach and a different bargaining style which would be more worthwhile than strike action. He said, ``It was ludicrous for unions ... to stick to outdated behavior which should have no place in a modern and progressive trade union movement.''
Mr. Hammond said the doors of his union still are open to everyone, signaling a possible membership war with the 82 unions still affiliated with the TUC, which represents 90 percent of the unionized labor in Britain. Weakened and divided, the labor movement has been criticized as an ``archaic structure'' whose lack of adaptability has helped to ensure that the opposition Labour Party will not be reelected to replace the Conservative government for years to come.
Representing less than 50 percent of the total British workforce, labor unions continue to lose membership despite the steady decrease in the numbers of unemployed workers since 1986. They have also failed to expand membership in the high-technology and service industries.
The unions were blamed earlier this year when the Ford Motor Company backed out of a planned investment in Dundee, Scotland, an area of high unemployment. Because of failure to agree with labor representatives on single-union representation at the proposed factory, Ford subsequently announced it was locating the plant in Spain.
Union leaders this week called for ``no more Dundees'' but observers said that there was a gap between conference rhetoric and the flexible policies which could restore the labor movement's tarnished public image and political clout.