Why can't they be grateful?

Kevin Maguireimplores the unions to drop the victim culture and see what they have gained from Labou

The tea and coffee were poured and the chocolate biscuits handed round in the TUC's fifth-floor general council chamber. The industry minister, Ian McCartney, shuffled his papers and prepared to outline the government's package of new job rights. Forty-five minutes later he was still waiting for his union hosts to finish going through the minutes of their last meeting.

A few general secretaries had the good grace to look embarrassed over the delay. A couple appeared to enjoy being in control for once. Most, as usual, were blissfully unaware.

When he was finally allowed to speak, McCartney, organised labour's most important ally in government, gave a performance one fan privately described as a tour de force. He outlined an impressive battery of employment measures: all workers will for the first time have the right to be represented in grievance and disciplinary hearings; if half the workforce have union cards then recognition is virtually guaranteed, and just 10 per cent of the workforce can trigger a recognition ballot; paid maternity leave will rise from 14 to 18 weeks, and unpaid parental leave of three months will become law.

Yet this week's publication of a ground-breaking Employment Relations Bill will be met with union accusations of sell-outs and betrayals. Trapped in a victim culture, unions see themselves as always cheated of victories that should be theirs.

When interest rates are cut by a quarter or half per cent, do unions welcome the reduction? No, they call for another cut. When the minimum wage was set at £3.60 for adults, did unions welcome the first across-the-board attack on poverty pay? No, they complained that it was too low and exempted young people.

This week's bill contains 42 new employment rights. Labour's manifesto promised three. Yet any grudging praise from the unions will be drowned out by their carping.

Much breast-beating has been heard from union HQs over changes to the bill since the Fairness at Work white paper was published before Christmas. At present, workers can be sacked as soon as they go on strike. Under the proposed legislation, that won't be allowed. But at the CBI's insistence, strikers may still be dismissed after eight weeks. "Betrayal!" shout the unions, yet firms will have to show they tried to resolve the dispute instead of sitting back for two months before sending out the P45s.

The jibe that the "fairness not favours" promised has been all favours for employers and no fairness for unions (see the Bill Morris interview in last week's NS) might get a round of applause from activists. But it is just not true.

McCartney's boast to the TUC that by the middle of this parliament Tony Blair's government will have done more on employment than all previous Labour administrations put together is not an idle one. The minimum wage will be in force from April, the Social Chapter has been signed, unions are back in GCHQ, the EU's young workers and working time directives have been accepted, and bosses will be forced to ballot workers if they want to derecognise unions, making derecognition all but impossible.

Unions are right to keep pushing the interests of their members. They would be wise, however, to remember that those same members want to be in bodies that can claim some victories.

The political landscape has changed dramatically since the election, yet many union leaders publicly act as if nothing has changed. The fundamental mistakes union leaders made in the 1970s and 1980s cost them dear - and unless the opportunities now offered are grasped, Bill Morris will miss the boat like his predecessors. He must understand that being a social partner means working with employers and the government. It does not mean selling out the workers. As professional negotiators, union leaders should realise they have done pretty well out of Labour. With the new legal framework, and with British workers worried about job insecurity, they have the opportunity for a renaissance.

Yet the reception given to the working time directive when it came into force last October did not bode well for the future. As well as the 48-hour limit on the working week, millions of employees are now guaranteed at least three weeks' paid holiday a year. Alas, not a single union kicked off a campaign to inform workers of their rights and get them to join the union. Instead the directive was met by TUC complaints that it had been watered down.

The Financial Times reckoned the TUC beat the CBI 6-2 when the white paper was published. Arguably the CBI pulled one back in the bill, but that still makes it a 6-3 win. Blair, more comfortable in the boardroom than on the shop floor, has been won over by McCartney. The No 10 political officer Jon Cruddas put forward more convincing arguments than the CBI's man, Geoffrey Norris. The TUC general secretary, John Monks, ran a more effective lobbying campaign than the CBI president, Sir Clive Thompson.

Yet the bill will be met by more union bleating. Once again the TUC will be in danger of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. For once, its leading lights should declare the glass is half full, not half empty. That way they can move on instead of looking back.

The writer is political editor of the "Mirror"