The new Union Modernisation Fund, worth £5m, is to be spent over the next two years training the next generation of senior unionists on behalf of New Labour.
The fund, which would have to be matched by any union taking up the offer, has a stated aim of helping trade unions 'adapt to meet the challenges of the modern workplace'.
The Department of Trade and Industry has finished setting up a board to oversee the DTI's newest initiative, launched in conjunction with the TUC.
The board consists of outgoing TUC President Jeannie Drake; Professor Willy Brown from the Low Pay Commission, Judith Hackitt, Director-General of the Chemical Industries Association, Adrian Askew, General Secretary of Connect, Jeannie Drake, Deputy General Secretary of the Communication Workers Union, ex-Amicus deputy chief Danny Carrigan and is chaired by Sir Bill Connor, a member of the Central Arbitration Committee and former General Secretary of shop-workers union USDAW.
The seven members will oversee the first round of funding, which has several 'priority themes' including:
- Improving the understanding of modern business practices by full time officers and lay representatives, to better enable unions to work constructively with employers as partners to improve business performance.
- Improving two-way communication between unions and their members, leading to a potential for greater participation of members in the union
- Improving the ability of unions to respond to the increasing diversity of the labour market, and to supply services geared to the needs of a diverse membership.
- Applying modern management methods to the running of unions as efficient, outward-looking and flexible organisations
- Assessing the challenges and opportunities of union restructuring and union mergers
- Developing the professional competence of union officers
Commenting on the launch, TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said: "This is a welcome initiative by government that recognises the importance of unions to the modern world of work.
"But it is also an increasingly complex world and this fund will help unions develop their capacity to service their members, deal effectively with employers and contribute to building a successful economy. No doubt some will attack it, but it is small beer compared to the help for business that the DTI already rightly provides."
Alan Johnson said: "With any period of change, the role of trade unions - providing advice, advocacy and support in the workplace - is critical. Whether it's helping a new mother understand the new rights she has to leave and pay, advising staff on changes to their pension, or negotiating a solution to tricky workplace issues.
Fears are growing that, with an emphasis on training younger union representatives and 'Training union reps in areas such as business and people management', the funds could form the backbone of a campaign to promote New Labour supporters into positions of power.
The TUC did not respond to questions over the purpose of the fund.