New Berth for Prezza

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Silently and majestically, the good ship John Prescott slipped effortlessly into a new safe haven over the summer recess.

This amazing manoeuvre provides Prezza with a new berth at Amicus, the union which just a few weeks back became the largest in the country through a merger with the much smaller GPMU print union. Not only has Amicus now got about 1.3 million members, it also has by far the largest concentration of union-sponsored MPs in the House of Commons. Prescott's move makes him the 120th member of the Amicus parliamentary group, and having the deputy prime minister wedged in among that lot will do no harm at all come the TUC and Labour Party conference season this autumn.

This is a remarkable turnaround from just a year or two back, when Prezza's position as an RMT-sponsored MP became untenable following a series of run-ins with the union. Prescott refused to abide by the not unreasonable RMT decision that the activities of union-sponsored MPs should reflect union policy on issues like opposition to privatisation and the war in Iraq, and support for workers in dispute - clearly a list of totally barking demands as far as the New Labour apparatus is concerned.

Eventually Prescott resigned with a big flounce over the RMT's decision to withdraw longstanding donations to his constituency fund. And then, earlier this year, the historic link between the RMT and the Labour Party - which stretched back to its formation in 1889 - was dramatically broken. The RMT was expelled over a decision taken at annual conference to allow local branches to affiliate to other political parties, including the Scottish Socialist Party.

But why should New Labour be bothered at all about what is going on inside the unions when they keep telling us that collective organisation is a total irrelevancy? In fact the unions are far from irrelevant and they have acted as a constant thorn in the government's side and provided one of the most important channels through which workers' resentment against New Labour in general and Tony Blair in particular has been expressed.

The response of the supposedly 'New' Labour hierarchy to all of this has been as shameless as it ever was in the past - if you can't win the hearts and minds of the membership by putting up a decent fight, your only real alternative is to resort to all manner of backroom scheming and chicanery. It's not that long ago that when the ultimate slimeball, Ken Jackson, was ousted as general secretary of Amicus it was discovered that another leading New Labour apparatchik, John Spellar (now at the Northern Ireland office), was being provided with free office facilities in the union headquarters.

And it's not just Amicus and the RMT that New Labour seems worried about, either. When the firefighters first threatened to come out on national strike at the end of 2002, the office of the Deputy Prime Minister - headed up by Prescott and that other dedicated machine politician, Nick Raynsford - unleashed a torrent of threats and abuse against the leadership of the FBU, and pulled every stunt in the book to scupper a negotiated settlement that might have favoured the union.

They were recently at it again during national talks on the latest phase of the firefighters' pay deal. This time the fire service minister (Nick Raynsford again) went out of his way to sabotage a deal between the FBU and the employers' representatives (predominantly councillors from various local authorities). This was achieved by the subterfuge of packing the relevant meeting with New Labour goons to make sure the government got the vote they wanted. One witness told the Financial Times, 'A lot of councillors, and the government, want to smash the FBU. Why don't they want to be honest about it?'

Right through the summer period, all manner of wheeling and dealing has been going on between another of Blair's favoured hard men, health secretary John Reid, and leaders of the major health unions over the sudden unravelling of the government's flagship 'modernisation' package, Agenda for Change. Reid has been attempting to negotiate a trade-off with people like Dave Prentis of Unison that would involve the government making commitments to end the 'two-tier' workforce, in return for promises from the union that it will drop some of its objections to the modernisation package.

Some of this emerged in the horsetrading that went on at New Labour's National Policy Forum, where union leaders hailed a whole raft of concessions, while the government claimed that 'no red lines had been crossed'. The trouble is that both sides are walking the same tightrope from opposite directions. Reid is under massive pressure from the Treasury not to make any more concessions on the 'two-tier' workforce, mainly because it is worried that this might put the skids under its ongoing privatisation offensive, not least in the civil service. Prentis, on the other hand, is under immense pressure from his own members - many of them in the lowest paid NHS jobs as cleaners, porters and ancillaries - over Agenda for Change. They want a lot more from these talks, especially on issues like unsocial hours premiums, which under the current proposals would make them worse off.

So for both sides at the moment there is quite a lot to be wobbly about. The government can take a hard line with the FBU - but there's no guarantee that it won't backfire. And, while TGWU general secretary Tony Woodley has been doing his utmost to reach a rapprochement with the government, he was forced to promise full support for the all-out strike on the Sheffield buses. For the majority of leaders of the main unions, no matter how much some of them detest Blair, the overarching priority over the next few months is to avoid the Tories getting back in.

On the other hand, many of them are under increasing pressure from their own members to deliver on bread and butter issues such as pay and working hours. And in the last few weeks there have been increasing signs that workers in industries as diverse as the docks, airports and the buses have had enough of fruitless negotiations with management and are prepared to do something about it. All this makes for a particularly volatile brew, with politics and the industrial struggle intermingled to an unusually high degree.