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Cablegate: Uk Trade Unions Alternately Pursue Enlightened And

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FM AMEMBASSY LONDON
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INFO RUEHXI/LABOR COLLECTIVE
RUEHBL/AMCONSUL BELFAST 0619
RUEHED/AMCONSUL EDINBURGH 0618

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 LONDON 006761

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SENSITIVE
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E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: ELAB PGOV UK
SUBJECT: UK TRADE UNIONS ALTERNATELY PURSUE ENLIGHTENED AND
NARROW SELF INTERESTS


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Sensitive but unclassified. Not for internet.

1. (SBU) Summary: The British trades union movement's
annual convention was an exposition of both the broad and
narrow visions of its members. At times it pursued the lofty
goals of workplace equality, better conditions, skills
training and opportunity. At others, its members called for
the preservation of uneconomic practices simply because they
benefited from them. Their icy reception of PM Blair
epitomized this dichotomy: they recognized and appreciated
what he has done in the Labour Party's nine years in power to
promote jobs, improve the National Health Service, invest in
education and reform pensions. But when he has sought to
trim government spending by reducing positions, he has met
with anger. The moderate General Secretary of the TUC,
Brendan Barber, faces increasing difficulty holding the
trades union movement near the political center, as a
powerful core of big unions pulls it left. End Summary.

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2. (SBU) The UK's broad union coalition, the Trades Union
Congress (TUC) held its annual conference September 11 to 14
in Brighton. Comprising 64 unions, the TUC represents about
6.5 million of the 7 million organized workers in UK. Just
over a quarter of the UK work force is unionized, much more
so in the public sector (60% unionized) than the private
(17%). A handful of recently consolidated mega-unions make
up the majority of membership: the largest public sector
union, Unison, has 1.3 million members. Its private sector
counterpart, Amicus, has 1.2 million. Other big players are
the Transport and General Workers Union (777,000) and the
initials-only union, GMB (575,000). Although the unions
founded the Labour Party in 1906, only 16 of the 64 unions in
the TUC are also members of the Party. They are among the
biggest, however, including the top four listed above. The
TUC itself is not affiliated.

3. (SBU) The TUC leadership hoped to use its annual moment
in the spotlight to showcase its current agenda: protecting
jobs in the National Health Service; upholding legal
protections for immigrant workers, so they do not undercut
other jobseekers; and fighting the proposed raising of the
retirement age to 68 (in 2044). As expected, however, most of
the national media attention focused on the leadership battle
within the Labour Party. Despite a preconference pledge by
the unions to avoid public position taking, few General
Secretaries could resist the temptation to share their views

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when the TV cameras were on them. A senior official at
Amicus privately shook his head when his union's General
Secretary, Derek Simpson, announced without prior

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consultation that his union would support Chancellor Gordon
Brown's bid to replace PM Blair, who has said he will stand
down within twelve months. "There is no process" the
official moaned.

4. (SBU) PM Blair's last address to the TUC was the mostly
widely covered event at the Congress, but not particularly
groundbreaking. The handful of protestors, primarily from
the hard left National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport
Workers (RMT) led by their firebrand General Secretary Bob
Crow, staged a choreographed walkout as Blair began. Blair
responded as he always has: a Labour Government is better
for the unions than a Tory one. "I simply say to people who
make the protest, you are perfectly entitled to do it but
realize that those hostile to a Labour government - you are
doing precisely what (the Tories) want. Not very sensible,"
he said. The moderate members of the movement acknowledge
the great strides workers have made under Blair - there are
no longer "jobs marches" for example - but concede that
Gordon Brown's union background will always make him more
appealing to the rank and file.

5. (SBU) On the international front, the members were at
their most leftist, supporting perennial resolutions in favor
of Cuba and Venezuela, and more narrowly denouncing MOD plans
to replace the Trident nuclear deterrent. The vote on the
Trident was more divided because of the union jobs at stake
in the defense industries, another example of the broad
vision warring with the narrow interests. An observer from
the AFL-CIO (protect) explained that Barber tends to allow
the left-wing to dominate the international agenda, because
it is of little consequence to the unions.

6. (SBU) Despite the anti-American flavor of many of the
motions, the AFL-CIO retains its honored position as the only
union invited to address the congress every year. This
year's representative was William Lucy, International
Secretary Treasurer of the American Federation of State,

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County and Municipal Employees and Founder-President of the
Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. Lucy was also a

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featured speaker at a "fringe" session with Barber and TUC
President Gloria Mills, its first black female President, on
Tackling Racism in the Workplace. British unions are
alarmed by the rise of the extreme right wing, nativist,
British National Party. Lucy pointed out that it is usually
not the tiny percentage of overt racist who are the problem,
but the many who remain indifferent in the face of racism.

7. (SBU) Comment: The British Labor movement is very much
alive, but struggling to remain relevant to workers.
Membership had declined slowly in a decade, from about 33% of
the workforce in 1995 to about 26% today. Ironically, as
more union demands are written into national law, such as the
minimum wage, improved health care and pensions, the need for
union-specific protections weaken. The struggle to absorb
hundreds of thousands of workers from Eastern Europe without
depressing wages, however, and to oppose the government's
move to streamline the public sector mean that there will
continue to be scope for the unions to pursue both their
broad and narrow agendas.

Visit London's Classified Website:
http://www.state.sgov.gov/p/eur/london/index. cfm
Tuttle

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