As the summer holiday season comes to a close and the political conference season opens, CBI director-general Digby Jones has launched a broadside against Britain's trade unions, describing them as "increasingly irrelevant" and "stuck in the mindset of yesterday’s ideology".
Speaking at the employers' organisation's annual dinner in Scotland, the blunt-speaking Jones Accused unions of failing to respond to the challenges of the global economy and pointed to the decline in union membership as evidence that unions had "outdated notions of the world of work".
Government figures showed that employee union members fell by 10,000 in the year to Autumn 2003, although some six out of ten public sector workers are still union members.
"The unions never learn. They want to inhibit personal choice. They want to destroy flexibility. As a result, the very people unions are paid to protect are the people who will suffer most in this fiercely competitive globalised economy," he said.
"The only protection people need in a tight labour market with skills shortages is to be so adaptable, trained and valuable that no employer would dare let them go or treat them badly."
"When there were millions of unskilled workers - vulnerable to exploitation - unions were essential to fight their corner," he added. "But when the labour market is stuffed full of people with a skill - even if not that advanced - unions stuck in the mindset of yesterday’s ideology become less relevant.
"With unions representing just 19 per cent of the private sector workforce, they become increasingly irrelevant every day."
But while Jones challenged unions to "recognise the competitive demands of the 21st century, reform, put training as your top priority for employees and, by encouraging flexibility, help the nation win the battle for competitiveness," Tony Woodley of the T&G union said that Jones should ‘join the real world’ where long working hours are having a huge effect on workers:
"Modern workers need union representation more than ever and any worker in Britain can tell you they face a stack of workplace issues. Would Jones seriously tell a victim of sex discrimination that all they need to do to avoid exploitation is to be adaptable?
"If trade unions were irrelevant I doubt the director of the CBI would be devoting half his speech to attacking us. The truth is unions are in workplaces recruiting more members and business see any union expansion as a threat," Woodley said.