Review: Trade Union Freedom Bill: Launch Conference

Submitted by carolyn on Thu, 20/09/2007 - 11:20

Conference Report by Gregor Gall

On Wednesday 31 January in London, some 150 trade unionists gathered together for the conference launch of the Institute of Employment Right’s latest book The Right to Strike: from the Trade Disputes Act 1906 to a Trade Union Freedom Bill 2006

The book is the intellectual and ideological ballast to support the move to provide unions with the ability to lawfully and effectively protect their members’ interests through collective mobilisation.

It means overturning both the Tories’ past legal legacy and Labour’s present regulations on industrial action through a redistribution of power.

A range of high-level speakers argued a convincing and stimulating case.

*Frances O’Grady*, deputy general secretary of the TUC argued that the Bill amounts not to a return to nostalgia of the past but a union view of what modernisation should be about. This meant, she argued, that the impediments to workers being able to respond robustly, by aggregating their forces together, in the same way in which different units of capital are themselves integrated together, must be removed. She went further by arguing this right of workers to respond robustly must be seen a legitimate one.

Labour leadership challenger, *John McDonnell MP* outlined the purpose of the Bill: to draw the government into a dialogue in which a progressive consensus could emerge. He began by emphasising the Bill’s reasonableness, modesty and ability to unify supporters behind it. However, he warned that that ability to achieve that dialogue as well as what could come out of it would be heavily dependent upon demonstrating to the government the breadth of support for the Bill not just amongst the Parliamentary Labour Party, the wider Labour Party and union movement itself but also amongst the organisations of civil society.

Demonstrable support amongst pressure groups, faith groups, NGOs and the like, he argued was essential to show remaining Labour MPs as well as government ministers how popular the Bill is and why they should have the confidence to support it.

RMT general secretary *Bob Crow* again made the call for workers to be able to do what employer can currently do, namely, cooperate across companies in the pursuit of their collective interests.
Several speakers like CWU leader, *Billy Hayes*, and *Tony Woodley*, TGWU general secretary argued that the Bill would not play well with the readership of the rightwing newspapers. This Blairite argument, they said, was an irrelevance because it was the wrong starting point.

Rather, the Bill will live or die by whether it mobilises its own natural constituency, namely, the 7 million trade unionists and their families. Pandering to a rightwing agenda, Tony suggested, was no way to achieve that mobilisation.

*Stephen Cavalier* from Thompsons solicitors illustrated the unwillingness of government bodies associated with the DTI to intervene to enforce existing employment law through the example of the JJB Sports dispute concerning the use of agency workers during strikes.

Reflecting on his experience, *Barry Lovejoy* of the University and College Union noted that because it is so easy for employers to gain injunctions to prevent industrial action as a result of the anti union legislation, employers effectively determine when strikes happen. Strikes are, thus, at their convenience, highlighting the deficit in industrial democracy.

*Christine Blower*, from the NUT, highlighted the current difficulties unions have in protecting union members’ future conditions when undertakings are transferred to new owners or controllers, whether in the private or public sectors.

Many speakers reminded the audience that the consecutive British governments had signed various international conventions and treaties guaranteeing the right to strike while not implementing or enforcing this in domestic law.

It seems apparent that consecutive British governments cynically signed these agreements on the basis that not signing them would lead to international condemnation – certainly more than would be faced by signing them but not enforcing them.

Throughout the conference, the issue of the most appropriate way to relate to the Labour Party loomed large. Speakers recognised it provides the only means by which to push for a change in the current legislation, particularly because this is reserved to the Westminster Parliament. But, at the same time, they also recognised that it is a vehicle that is in reverse gear, making the task a bit like the labour of Sisyphus.

*Steve Cottingham* from solicitors OH Parsons gave a detailed presentation on the hurdles and constraints through which lawful industrial action must pass on its way from intention and planning and then to action. He amde particular reference to notice procedures and problems with injunctions.

The absence of *Brian Caton*, general secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association, was apposite of the very injustice of injunctions: he was unable to speak as planned because he was defending his union in the High Court as a result of an application by the Home Secretary for an injunction to stop the union implementing its policy on forced overtime.

*Jeremy Dear*, general secretary of the NUJ cited seven examples of how his relatively small union have faced seven threats of injunctions from employers. The point he, thus, made was that while the granting of injunctions may make the news, they are but the tip of the iceberg. The number of threats of injunctions which are not reported is far larger. On top of this, unions are self censoring themselves for fear of soliciting threats of injunctions from employers.

*John Hendy QC*, the drafter of the Bill, drew the conference to a close. He emphasised that trade unionists in wage negotiations normally demand much more than they are prepared to actually accept because they are prepared to be bargained downwards. If they demand what they actually want, this means they would end up with less.

However, because the Trade Union Freedom Bill is a relatively modest set of demands which aims to unify the broadest body of opinion around it, he argued there can in this case be no compromise. The demands are already minimum demands. If they are compromised upon with the forces of neo-liberalism and ‘new’ Labour, he believed, we would be no further forward in the battle to secure effective freedom for trade unions and their members.

*Gregor Gall is Professor of Industrial Relations at Centre for Research in Employment Studies at the University of Hertfordshire*.

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