updated 9/12/2006 1:49:25 PM ET 2006-09-12T17:49:25

Union members booed and hissed Prime Minister Tony Blair during a speech to an organized labor conference Tuesday, and more than a dozen delegates walked out to protest his efforts to partly privatize public services.

After a rocky trip to the Middle East, where he encountered demonstrations, and bitter infighting at home over when he would leave office, the Trades Union Congress had promised to be a tough audience.

Many union members are angry over the privatization plans and the Iraq war. Demonstrators held placards that said “Go Now!” as Blair began speaking, and he jokingly thanked the delegates “for that fine introduction — more or less.”

Some of the roughly 1,000 delegates who remained in the hall shouted and heckled when Blair mentioned Iraq, Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — all issues on which he has angered many members of his governing Labour Party.

“You can hold up your posters about troops out, but the reason troops are in is because the democratic governments of Afghanistan and Iraq need our troops,” he retorted. “You can disagree, but just listen to the argument.”

Blair underscored the links between globalization, immigration and terrorism.

“Suddenly we feel under threat: physically from this new terrorism that is coming onto our streets; culturally as new waves of migrants change our society; and economically because an open world economy is hastening the sharpness of competition,” Blair said. “They feel the rules are changing and they never voted to change them. They feel, in a word, powerless.”

Plea to change thinking
Blair said the answer was not to give in to fear.

“The answer to economic globalization is open markets and strong welfare and public service systems, particularly those like education, which equip people for change,” he said. “The answer to terrorism is measures on security and tackling its underlying causes. The answer to concern over migration is to welcome its contribution and put a system of rules in place to control it.”

Condemning protesters who walked out instead of asking him questions, Blair agreed to answer a volley of grievances from union delegates after his speech. Most of the complaints focused on privatizing services such as health care, education and prisons.

Several delegates pressed him about the use of private sector employees in public health, with Blair responding that his government had poured money into health care and expanded it by 250,000 workers.

“The issue at the next election will be have we managed to deliver the outputs for the money that the taxpayers see we have put in,” he said, and then noted that no one had applauded the answer.

Blair announced last week that he would step down as prime minister and Labour Party leader next year, but stopped short of setting a departure date.

His relationship with labor unions, traditionally an important part of his party’s base, has been riddled with tension. Last week he joked that Tuesday’s speech would be his last to the group — “probably to the relief of both of us.”

Union chiefs complain
“What is the point of listening to someone when you can’t believe a word they say?” said Bob Crow, the general secretary of the RMT, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, which represents 73,000 workers in Britain’s rail, bus, road freight and shipping industries.

“Blair promised us a publicly owned railway, an ethical foreign policy and fair labor laws,” Crow said. “But we’ve been delivered privatization, illegal wars and the boast that Britain maintains the harshest anti-union legislation in western Europe.”

Some of the RMT’s delegates walked out during Blair’s speech to the congress, which represents nearly 7 million workers.

Dean Mills, a national officer for Britain’s 53,000-member Fire Brigades Union, said Blair’s government was too pro-business and anti-union.

“Blair doesn’t treat our union or any other fairly, full stop,” Mills said. “We believe there should be a partnership between employers and workers ... a partnership of equals. Under Blair, the position has been the workers and unions have been treated as subordinates.”

Derek Simpson, general secretary of the Amicus union, called for Blair to hand over power immediately to Treasury Chief Gordon Brown.

But Brown, considered Blair’s likeliest successor, may disappoint the unions. He has said he backs Blair’s part-privatization plans for many public services. He planned to join union leaders at a private dinner Tuesday night.

Some union activists could flee to the third-largest party, the Liberal Democrats. They are unlikely to support the resurgent Tories, which despite their recent move to the revamp the party’s policies, are still considered too pro-business for most left-leaning union members.

On Monday, Blair returned from Lebanon, where a protester briefly interrupted a briefing he was giving and accused him of complicity in the recent Israeli bombardment of the country.

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