The unions' drive to improve site safety is putting them into a privileged position with the government's top decision-makers. This growth in their political clout has far-reaching implications for all sides of industry.
The Unions are on the march again in construction. They have ensured that safety has replaced Egan in John Prescott's in-tray, and their policy advice is radical: roving reps with the power to stop work on dangerous sites and discrimination against tenders from firms with poor safety records. Now the hand of the unions is apparent once more: the DETR is considering the formation of a powerful safety body.

"We've worked hard to get safety to the top of the agenda, instead of procurement and price," says Bob Blackman, the T&G's national secretary for construction. It is generally admitted, though, that T&G's campaigning, along with deputations from other union big guns, has found a sympathetic ear. After six workers died in nine days last autumn, Prescott was ready to act. By November the safety summit was on the calendar.

Two months after the summit, the unions' agenda is still rolling out. The latest move is to seek the setting up a body to make sure that safety targets laid down at the summit are met. But with employers and unions at loggerheads over the plan for roving site reps, this latest move could stoke up more trouble. Not least within the DETR, where insiders say it is causing sparks to fly.

Contractors have not yet been brought into the discussions over the new body, and opinions are divided. Some say a new body would not do any harm; others question why yet another group is necessary. They are, they say, committed to putting their own house in order. "Why do we need another body when we have the Health & Safety Commission and a pan-industry group, CONIAC, in place?" asks one major contractor.

But so strong is Prescott's determination to crack down on safety standards in the aftermath of last year's 60% rise in site deaths – to an extent has surprised some of the unions – that observers believe that the new body will be brought to life. "He might not be as cuddly to employers as Nick Raynsford, but he's always had a grasp of the industry, as he's the one driving through the changes," says George Brumwell, general secretary of UCATT.

Discussions are in an embryonic stage, but the unions want the body to have a limited number of seats around the table. There would be an independent chairman, it would not necessarily reserve a place for a contractor, and it would be spearheaded by environment minister Michael Meacher, who the unions see as championing their cause. It is understood that he has already had meetings with the TUC to discuss the proposal.

But as the minister for construction, it would naturally fall within Raynsford's boundaries, too, and observers say he is keen to fight his ground. Raynsford, they say, is more likely to promote a consensual, pan-industry approach, particularly in the light of the wind-up of the Construction Industry Board. The unions are unhappy at Raynsford's seeming lack of sympathy in the run-up to the summit. "We were very disappointed that he seemed to swallow the employers' view, hook, line and sinker," says one senior union representative.

We were disappointed that Nick Raynsford swallowed the employers’ view hook, line and sinker

Senior union representative

"The key thing," says Brumwell, "is that the new body should have people who can drive and change things. It's got to have credibility and make sure the safety targets can be delivered." Unions acknowledge any proposals for setting up the body are likely to be put on ice until after the election. Doubt is also in the air as to whether Meacher and Raynsford will return to Eland House, and indeed whether construction itself will remain there – rumours abound that the sponsorship of the industry will be transferred to the Department of Trade and Industry.

In the meantime, unions remain determined to keep the pressure up and capitalise on their new-found lease of life. The T&G, for example, is pushing for an industry-wide occupational health scheme for all employees and is organising a march across the City of London, past all the sites where people have died in the past year, finishing at Construction House, home of the Construction Confederation.

But it is the issue of the roving safety reps that still causes most controversy. Many of the major contractors continue to insist the idea, which is soon to be launched by the Health and Safety Executive as a pilot study, is unworkable. They say privately that once the pilot studies are launched, the impracticalities of operating the scheme will be apparent. Who will be liable for the reps? Who will they be responsible to? Who will pay them? The unions, say the contractors, will be forced to backpedal.

There is certainly no sign of that at the moment. George Brumwell – a friend of Prescott and a member of the Health and Safety Commission – warned the industry again that if it did not accept reps voluntarily, they would be imposed. Brumwell was invited to No 10 after the summit to put the unions' case to Tony Blair.

Unions point out that while large firms may rightly say that they have their own safety reps, many small businesses certainly cannot afford them, so this initiative would share the cost and bring greater protection to all.

They argue that it is an outdated view of unions, that goes back to breakdown of industrial relations in the 1970s and 1980s, that is probably at the heart of the opposition. Contractors, they say, fear that the reps could close sites just to flex their muscles, rather than because they have genuine safety concerns.

Putting it crudely, the safety issue is a good recruitment tool. With Labour, we’re looking to recruit again

Andrew Dodgson, TGWU spokesman

"Having a safety rep has never been a problem in other industries, but in construction there's still this attitude that they're troublemakers," says Malcolm Bonnett, health and safety officer at the AEEU. That said, his union would rather try to persuade employers to take safety more seriously than taking the confrontational route of roving reps. "Roving reps wouldn't be an issue if employers worked more closely with unions and trained managers to a higher level in health and safety," says Bonnett.

Employers' concerns that roving reps would provide a recruitment vehicle, however, are not without basis. Unions freely admit to playing the safety card to boost membership. "Putting it crudely, yes, it [the safety issue] is a good recruitment tool," says T&G spokesman Andrew Dodgson. "Union membership declined in the 1980s and 1990s. With a Labour government, we're now looking to recruit again."

"Anything that we do on site that is going to improve the way people are treated encourages people to join trade unions," says the T&G's Blackman. With only an estimated 15-20% of construction's workforce belonging to a union, there's still some way to go. But unions across the board are optimistic that their message is striking a chord. Allan Black, the GMB's construction co-ordinator, points to a swell in numbers in his union. "Traditionally, we had 20,000 site members; that's gone up 2000-3000 in the past 12 months."

New employment rights giving greater trade union recognition and victories in the courts over holiday pay for self-employed workers are two areas that have boosted unions' membership. Improving site conditions and pay rates, negotiated through the working-rule agreement that are well above inflation, have also played a part in making unions more fashionable, he says. "The shortage of skilled labour has forced the political climate to change," says Black.

With a Labour government in power it was inevitable that unions would have greater access to the ears of ministers. Those in construction have made the most of it. It was union pressure that won a place for a representative from the TUC on the Egan review; there were no chairs for construction bodies. As one union official with friends in the cabinet points out: "I knew them when they were councillors or minor officials; we've grown up together."