Workers Online
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Workers Online
  Issue No 2 Official Organ of LaborNet 26 February 1999  





Checking the Spellar

Interview with John Spellar by Peter Lewis

We talk to a former union official who is now a minister in the Blair Government about the difficult relationship between New Labour and the labour movement.


John Spellar checks out Workers Online

John Spellar is a junior defence minister in the Blair Government and one of the few trade union officials to hold a portfolio. On a recent trip to Australia he spoke to Workers Online

The changes the Blair Government are proposing under the Fairness At Work Bill have been cast as setting Britain on the path to a US-style industrial relations system, where unions must win a ballot before the can represent workers. It seems a strange piece of legislation for a Labour Government, doesn't it?

Not at all. You've got to understand that the legislation is filling a void left from the Tory era. Unions had no legal recognition and now they do. The Fairness At Work Bill gives the unions the ability to obtain ballots for union recognition and alternatively the rights of recognition were a union gets 50 per cent of the workplace. Now, not only is that an enormous improvement on what unions had under previous conservative administrations, I actually think it provides a huge opportunity for the union in terms of rebuilding trade union membership, but also the rights of unions at work.

Having come out the Accord process in Australia, I'd be interested to know what degree of input the unions had in coming up with this legislation?

Considerable. The TUC and also the major unions affiliated to the Labour Party had regular discussions, not only with the departmental ministers but also the Prime Minister and his office. The unions would have preferred some minor amendments, but all them see this as a big advance for the trade union movement and a big advance for working people.

In terms of the unification of Western Europe, what opportunities is that opening up for British trade unions?

One is the issue of common minimum standards across Europe, for example the Transfer of Undertakings Provision which protects the position of individuals or groups who are transferred from the public sector as a result of contracting out in the private sector. That's been a major protection for members and we've actually built on that as a Labour Government and provided even stronger protection. That's not just protection for the union members, it's also protection for good employers who don't wish to be undercut on terms and conditions by cowboy employers. For example in the Ministry of Defence, we've managed to get a code of practise drawn up between the major employers in the industry and the unions and the Department, precisely because we're all interested in having a workforce which delivers productivity and also getting properly paid for that. There's a much better atmosphere of partnership -- with industry as well as unions. In contrast, the previous government was just telling people what to do and trying to get them to adjust to the theory, rather than look at how things really work. Transfer of Undertakings originally came out of European regulations and has been of considerable benefit.

Trade unions in Europe are also working together in company councils and also in making representations to the European union and those links and definitely developing between the major trade unions. In addition, all the major Socialist parties in Europe will be campaigning on a common program particularly dedicated to improving growth and improving employment in the European Union. You can't do that just in one country and therefore, a common program across Europe is the right way to go.

A big issue for Australian unions at the moment is working hours and working time What activity is going on around those issues?

It is a major issue and it's not one that we, frankly, have an easy answer to any more than I thin the trade unions have either. There is the Working Time Directive, which is starting to impact in some areas.

How does that work?

The Working Time Directive is looking at a restriction of a maximum of 48 hours except by local agreement, because in some cases there will be the necessity for working longer hours, particularly if you are in a seasonal industry.

Is this a Europe wide initiative?

Yes, it is currently a proposal , although I must say it is meeting some resistance from some countries and there are a lot of difficulties to be ironed out.

Who's driving it?

There's a number of countries, particularly German industry and the new German Government are looking at the current regulations they have there. After all, the overall thrust is to ensure that within Europe, countries are not competing on the basis of lesser terms and conditions, so that is an area which is obviously of considerable interest. We also need to ensure that we can deal with some of the difficulties that may arise -- junior hospital doctors are another example, they tend to work long hours during their training period and if that was restricted too soon it could present problems for the health system. There's also a broader issue of increasing the workforce's level of skills in the unemployed workforce, so that they can fill the gap that would open if working hours were to be limited.

What areas are you talking about here?

Right across the board. Even at relatively slow rates of growth in the economy, we are suffering skills shortages, largely because the Conservatives never accepted that the government has a role in skills training. They undermined apprenticeship schemes, a lot of industry was cut back and that industry that remains is relying on older workers. We have to replace those skills -- and that can't happen overnight.

A lot is being said about the "Third Way" at the moment. What does it mean to you and do you buy it?

The key area to look at is that we have had a long period with a Conservative Government who believed that the private sector was, by definition, better. Equally, previously a section of the Labour Party believed that everything would be done better in the public sector. The reality is that different areas of work are more appropriate for different sectors and also that this changes over time as technology changes. What we really need to have happen is taking the most appropriate areas for each sector and ensuring we are keeping abreast of technological developments in both the public and private sector. So in many ways, the difference that this Labour Government has brought, and the reason why I believe it is still running better in the polls now than when it was elected, is we are actually dealing with issues on a pragmatic basis. we are asking what work, what doesn't, we are more interested in delivering the service than implementing some model of service-delivery. This has been a tangible move on Labour's part from looking at outputs to looking at inputs. rather than saying how much money did we spend in an area, saying for example how many patients did we treat and what were the service levels like. That's a big change and its that sort of pragmatism which I think defines the Third Way of politics.

Does that leave British Labour with any philosophy or is it a pure pragmatism?

I think whatever your philosophy, deciding what works and what delivers the service that you want are the most important questions. You need to ask yourself what you want out of a system and then you do not come in with a doctrinaire approach to how you will achieve it ...

But surely you need a philosophy to tell you where you want to be ...

But that's simple - it's about making the lives of working people this year a bit better than they were last year. That is not an ignoble objective.

It's not a bad political one either...

I look at too many political parties in society which went for some great leap forward to a final policy whereas it is those societies that actually moved forward step by step and actually did good by degrees who actually ended up doing an awful lot better for normal working people in their countries. And that's not a bad objective, that's what I've fought for in politicos all my life. I think it's the best way to go and I think we're proving it in government.


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 2 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Checking the Spellar
We talk to a former union official who is now a minister in the Blair Government about the difficult relationship between New Labour and the labour movement.
*  Unions: Working It Out
NSW trade unions have embraced a movement-wide campaign to deal with the vexed issue of ensuring workers have a life.
*  History: Remembering The Eveleigh Railway Workshops
The Eveleigh railway yards have a rich history which your average commuter would never imagine.
*  Review: Opening Tanner's Australia
Lindsay Tanner's new book offers a frank and forthright view of the future for Australia.
*  Campaign Diary: Carr And The Unions
No-one would accuse the Premier and the labour movement of being bossum buddies, but their fortunes are inextricably linked.

»  Revealed: Reith Defies Own Pollster To Bash Unions
»  What's Going Down at Gordonstone?
»  VSU To Stop The Music
»  Employment Advocate Dines Out, But Not A Sausage For Workers
»  Union Interpreter Translates The Word “Exploit”
»  How Much Can A Koala Bear?
»  Botsman Shifts North To Tame The Rednecks

»  Guest Report
»  Sport
»  Trades Hall
»  Piers Watch

Letters to the editor
»  No Fan of Piers
»  Don't Be Glib
»  EMILY's List International Women's Day bash

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