The Right to Strike: A Review

Submitted by carolyn on Fri, 02/03/2007 - 16:02

A Review by John Green

Conspiracy formed by a number of unscrupulous enemies acting under an illegal compact, together and separately…Such a conspiracy is a powerful and dangerous engine…employed by the defendants for the purpose of organised and ruinous oppression. These are the words of a judge, Lord Brampton, not as you may imagine about a dastardly Mafia criminal conspiracy, but about a group of trade unionists trying to prevent the use of non-union labour! OK that was in 1901, but it demonstrates the traditional judicial collusion with the owners of capital against trade unions. It also demonstrates the inappropriateness of the judiciary being involved, as a matter of course, in industrial disputes.

This valuable and very informative book is a commemorative reminder of the Trade Disputes Act of 1906 – the great breakthrough for trade unions, when, for the first time, they were given legal immunity for actions carried out ‘in furtherance of a trade dispute’. But the book is much more than a commemoration. In the twelve contributions from some of Britain’s leading experts in law and industrial relations, it covers the history of the struggle for trade union rights since that watershed legislation in 1906, up to today, when unions find themselves, once again, having to fight for basic rights. Although unions in Britain clearly still enjoy a number of valuable rights, they are less free to operate than most of their brother and sister unions in the rest of Europe, and Britain’s trade union laws flout some of the basic rights anchored in the internationally agreed international labour standards of the ILO.

It is an irony of history that the law in Britain today is, in many ways, more restrictive on trade unions than it was 100 years ago when the Trades Disputes Act came into force. That Act provided simple legal protection for trade unions for 65 years. And it is a matter of acute shame that this present, so-called, Labour government is unwilling to do anything to restore union freedoms abolished under the Thatcher government.

This book, in presenting the background, as well as cogent arguments for a full repeal of Thatcher’s anti-union laws, will hopefully give renewed impetus to the Campaign for a Trade Union Freedom Bill and its passage through parliament. This, though, will only happen as it did with the first positive trade union legislation, as a result of extra-parliamentary struggle by trade unionists everywhere. The time is ripe for it and public perceptions are favourable.

Without full legal protection for trade unions, workers are left to fight with bows and arrows against the tanks and cruise missiles of the employers. The latter have their strong organisations and full legal protections. When are employers ever hauled to court for abusing the rights of their workers, when they hand out redundancy notices, close factories or rob pension funds?
But when, for instance, the miners go on strike, the full might of the state, the media and the judiciary go on the offensive like a well-disciplined army.

Trade unionists are not demanding anything more than a fair playing field – the right to organise, to picket, to take solidarity action to be able to defend their members’ interests. In a modern state, that should be taken for granted. But, as this book clearly demonstrates, the struggle for democratic rights is never ending as long as we have capitalism. Employers will always attempt to curtail workers’ rights and to hobble trade unions in order to be free to maximise their profits. Trade unions set up the Labour Party in the first place to ensure that their interests were fully represented in Parliament. Sadly, those interests are no longer defended by New Labour.

This is a valuable reference book and campaigning tool for trade unions to achieve new legislation.

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