Putting Trade Union Freedom on the Agenda

Submitted by carolyn on Thu, 21/06/2007 - 14:49

In May 2007 Gregor Gall spoke on behalf of the Institute of Employment Rights, to the PCS public sector group annual conference in Brighton on the Trade Union Freedom Bill. Gregor kindly submitted this report on his presentation

The PCS union annual conference has so many delegates to it that the conference centre in Brighton is one of the few places that can accommodate their numbers. Before the full national PCS conference begins mid-week, the group conferences are held at the beginning of the week. Along with the DWP (Department of Work and Pensions), Revenue and Customs and other groups, the PCS public sector group holds its section conference.

John Hendy QC, chair of the Institute and author of the Trade Union Freedom Bill , was unable to undertake this speaking engagement. It then fell to me as his co-author of the chapter in the Institute’s latest book The Right to Strike on the Trade Union Freedom Bill to fill in for him.

As a researcher of trade unions, I began by congratulating the PCS union and its merger constituents for achieving an 18% increase in their union membership over the last decade – no mean feat in today’s hostile environment.

Advocating support for the Trade Union Freedom Bill just after Blair had announced his departure timetable, I was struck by a number of ‘coincidences’ of time. We are now ten years on from the election of ‘new’ Labour to government and we still have not seen any dramatic or fundamental changes to the law on industrial action.

So we still have no positive right to strike, unlike many other European countries. Indeed, unions and workers in Britain had more freedom to organise collectively to defend their interests in the workplace 100 years ago thanks to the passing of the Trade Disputes Act of 1906.

And Blair made it clear in an interview with the Times just before the 1997 general election that Britain would still have the most restrictive trade union laws in the western world when ‘new’ Labour took office.

All this surely must be irrefutable evidence that ‘new realism’ has not worked. If you cast your minds back to the pasting that Labour took in the 1983 general election and then the subsequent defeat of the miners and print workers and then another Labour defeat in the 1987 general election, the ideology of ‘new realism’ emerged out of these huge setbacks.

Bluntly put, the argument ran that only re-electing Labour to government could stop Thatcher and the Tories – the unions were a spent force so there could be no re-run of the early 1970s when unions could bring down governments. This meant that everything had to be done, and everything sacrificed, in order to get Labour re-elected.

Strikes and militancy by unions would give Labour a bad name, making them unelectable, so these were to be curtailed by self-imposed moderation. Labour needed to move to the right to capture the middle ground so this was done and accepted.

The problem was that by the time ‘new’ Labour got re-elected in 1997, it firmly believed in what it was now saying. This was not a pretence put on to get elected, whereupon it would return to ‘real’ Labour values after being elected.

In order to show the relevance of the Trade Union Freedom Bill, delegates were reminded of the occasions when PCS plans for taking industrial action have been subject to applications for injunctions, the threat of this or industrial action ballots cancelled for fear of contravening the law.

As a union which is prepared to stand up for its members and presently takes a sizeable majority of all industrial action taken by the union movement, the threat of the current law is not going to go away for PCS unless the Trade Union Freedom Bill is passed.

Over and above this, the splitting up of central government and the civil service into umpteen different agencies means that it is ‘divide and rule’ is being practiced on the PCS. So presently, it is unlawful for PCS members in one agency to act in concert with members in another agency through taking industrial action over terms and conditions at work no matter that ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’.

So PCS was encouraged to adopt policy to become a sponsor of the Trade Union Freedom Bill and to play its part in taking advantage of the change in Labour Party leadership.

While Brown is not significantly different from Blair, but because the leadership change is taking place within an important crisis for ‘new’ Labour, this means that there is a greater opportunity to prize more out of Brown on reform of industrial action law and thus create more support for the passing of the Trade Union Freedom Bill. Allowing there to be space in the parliamentary timetable and a free vote on it from Labour MPs would be two conciliatory gestures from Brown.

Of course, a leadership contest would have allowed this process to be deepened, particularly as John McDonnell was the MP who introduced the Trade Union Freedom Bill into Parliament. Trade union affiliates of Labour and those unions that sponsor Labour MPs have missed a trick here because it is a sign of weakness that John McDonnell could not get onto the ballot paper.

Finally, the PCS activists were urged to play a significant role in building up and broadening out the RMT initiative of the National Shop Stewards Network, which holds it first full conference in London on Saturday 7 July this year.

This is a vital initiative because if we are successful in gaining a Trade Union Freedom Bill, we need to recognise that on its own it will make little difference. Therefore, unless unions are sufficiently strong to organise the industrial action that can defend and advance workers’ terms and conditions, the newly found freedom will not be taken advantage of and our efforts will have been in vain.

  • Gregor Gall is Professor of Industrial Relations at the Centre for Research in Employment Studies at the University of Hertfordshire (He is contactable at g.gall@herts.ac.uk).

An edited version of this article first appeared in the Morning Star on 18th May 2007

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