The director general of the Confederation of British Industry, Digby Jones, has sparked a row by claiming that rising trade union militancy is undermining the UK economy as business struggles against the rising challenge of global competition.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, he said that unions and employers were growing apart at a time when the UK was facing an exodus of jobs abroad and a potentially damaging rise in employment legislation.
"I wish trade unions would fight today's and tomorrow's battles and not yesterday's. "It's a real shame that the attitude seems to be 'no, no, can't, shan't', instead of saying 'how can we improve skills and literacy and how are we going to stop jobs leaving the country?'” he said.
"If all we are going to get is a return to the ideals of the 1970s, it is very sad
And he warned that the rise of union militancy came at a time when the UK was losing its competitive advantage because of rising employment regulation and poor workforce skills.
In a report published this week, the CBI has warned that a “relentless build up” of employment red tape is eroding UK power to change work patterns and workforce numbers. While Britain’s while competitors have removed layers of regulation, the UK has moved in the opposite direction.
The report also said that UK competitiveness is being undermined by “appalling low” levels of basic skills in the UK workforce, a situation that might take “decades” to resolve.
According to the CBI, poor literacy and numeracy affect one in five of British adults, a figure far higher than most EU nations. Fewer than four out of ten members of the UK workforce is educated to A-level standard, compared with three quarters of German employees.
Jones also accused unions of "outright obstruction" of public service reforms and said that their stance was motivated by a desire to defend their power bases, rather than concern for those who use public services.
"The Government knows it has to reform public services and business is quite prepared to play its part," he said.
"What we need is for those involved in public services to put the consumer first and not the deliverer."
But Sir Bill Morris, outgoing general secretary of the Transport and General Workers, said it was the employers' organisation which was the "single biggest blockage" to reforms across the workplace.
"We are facilitating reforms in the public services," he said. "There is a constant and regular dialogue. People are actually changing and we are bringing our members' workplace experiences to the debate."
"There is a real agenda where they are blocking trade union rights in small businesses and they are seeking to shift the blame for poor performance in the public services on to the trade unions."
Instead he accused the CBI of standing as "the single biggest blockage" to social reforms.
Jones' remarks come only a week before he address the TUC annual conference in Brighton, a gathering that promises him a lively reception.