Assistant Secretary of the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom
At a very well attended fringe meeting called by the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom with the Institute of Employment Rights in Durham on Friday evening two central themes emerged from speakers’ contributions. Firstly, the importance of the current strike wave now entering its second year, and secondly, the need for resolute action in the face of the latest round of anti-union laws, the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill.
Meeting chair, Bakers’ Union General Secretary Sarah Woolley, firstly introduced Jamie Driscoll, Mayor of North Tyneside and of course famously excluded from Labour’s selection process to be the candidate in the North East metro mayor election.
In a powerful speech he said he believed that Britain should be run in the interests of those people who do the work. He also made the point to great applause that the Leader of the Labour Party was not the labour movement but the people in this room were.
A theme taken up by Peoples’ Assembly National Secretary, Laura Pidcock, was freedom of expression. In the face of an ever more authoritarian government with both its strike laws and police and public order laws the space for working people to speak and act in their own interests was become increasingly more and more restricted and must be opposed.
Morning Star editor, Ben Chacko, made the point that that in the struggle against the anti-union laws we can’t take our eyes of the political right while Prison Officers’ Association General Secretary, Steve Gillan, said it is essential that Labour keeps its promise to repeal not just the Minimum Service Levels Bill but all the anti-union laws including those enacted against prison officers 30 years ago.
Professor Lydia Hayes of the Institute of Employment Rights explained that there were four key areas where the Minimum Service Levels Bill was contrary to current law. Firstly, the Bill effectively introduces conscripted or requisitioned labour in peace time with its “work notice” provision that compels strikers to work under threat of dismissal. This is clearly contrary to international law that bans forced labour or servitude. Secondly, the Bill is contrary to the Brexit legislation that obliges the UK not to use diminished labour rights to gain a competitive advantage over EU member states. Thirdly, the UK Government has invoked the UN’s International Labour Organisation as having endorsed its plans. This was rebutted by the ILO that pointed out the countries that do have MSLs often arrived at these by negotiation with only minor penalties for infringement. Lastly, the Secretary of State will be given “Henry VIII” powers to amend existing legislation to comply with the MSL law with virtually no reference to Parliament; remarkably this will include powers to amend legislation passed by the Pàrlamaid na h-Alba and Senedd Cymru. She warned the meeting that the Secretary of State may set the minimum service level very close to one hundred per cent.
NEU General Secretary Elect, Daniel Kedebe, made an appeal for working class unity in his speech. He confidently expected unity across the education unions when the new term begins in September but called for not just unity among striking education workers but for wider unity calling on other workers to strike with the teachers.
Individual rights at work remain important this year’s TUC President, Maria Exall, reminded the meeting. Labour’s pledges in its Green Paper New Deal for Working People include giving all workers day one rights on the job including creating a single status of worker, banning zero hours contacts and giving workers predictable contacts and, the outlawing of fire and rehire.
Mick Whelan, ASLEF General Secretary and Chair of Labour Unions, closed the rally expressing righteous indignation. He was angry meeting employers and ministers who asked him to be “fair and reasonable” – he responded by asking when it was fair and reasonable for workers not to have had a real pay rise for several years and how is it fair and reasonable to offer the same again this year in the face of runaway inflation. Railway workers would continue to strike and had no intention of complying with minimum service levels at whatever level the Secretary of State, in collusion with the employers, chose to set them.