5 August 2015
By Tom Unterrainer.
In his speech to the 2014 Conservative Party conference, Francis Maude launched a series of attacks on public sector trade unions.
He claimed that “[m]ore and more public servants are losing patience with trade union leaders who take their members for granted”; labelled recent ballot turnouts as “derisory” and promised that a “Conservative Government will legislate to outlaw strikes where less than half the eligible members have voted”. Maude’s justification for this promise was that “[i]t just isn’t right that an unrepresentative trade union baron should be able to close schools and bring the Tube to a standstill when they can’t even persuade half of their own members to vote.” 1
In addition, Maude raised the prospect of shortening the duration of strike mandates and reducing the number of “full-time union officials on the public payroll”.
In the normal course of events, for a senior Tory to attack the trade union movement from the rostrum at party conference is no big deal. However, this intervention was about more than simply pleasing the crowd. The 2014 Conservative conference took place just eight months ahead of a General Election and Maude was laying out the programme of a possible future government.
We now have that government, but it turns out that Maude was holding out on us.
It didn’t take long for full extent of the Tories’ plans to attack the trade union movement to become clear. Twenty days after the General Election, the Queen announced in her speech to both Houses of Parliament that “My government will bring about legislation to reform trade unions and to protect essential public services against strikes.”2
Just over a month after the Queen’s Speech the Trade Union Bill 2015-16 had its first reading in the House of Commons.
The government has declared its intention to complete all stages of the Bill and pass it into law within the first one hundred days of the new Parliament.
The detail of the Bill suggests that the Tories had been working on it for some time3
and whilst at first glance it appears to tie together loose ends and harden legislation from the Thatcher era, something more fundamental than increasing ballot thresholds is in play.
It is in this context that the Institute for Employment Rights, People’s Assembly, CLASS think-tank, Trade Union Coordinating Group and the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom called the first national response to the Bill. What follows is an account of contributions to the ‘Kill the Bill’ rally4
held in London on 29th July 2015, together with some comments and analysis on the Bill.
A missile aimed at public sector workers
Alex Kenny from the National Union of Teachers Executive opened the rally stating that “The NUT is very much committed to the aims of the rally and will work with other trade unions to kick this Bill into the dustbin of history.” Alex went on to attack the way in which the Bill labelled certain groups of workers – teachers, for instance – as “providing essential services” whilst excluding other groups from this category. He called this an “insult” and condemned attempts to divide one group of workers from another on this basis.
Carolyn Jones from the Institute for Employment Rights and a key organiser of the rally described the Bill as a piece of “divide and rule” legislation but went on to insist that “the Bill has the power to bring people together, to unite them.” Her first message to the government was this: “We know what you’re doing. We won’t stand by. We will Kill the Bill.”
Unison General Secretary, Dave Prentis, arrived at the rally a short time after his union announced its support for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership race and was greeted with loud applause. After praising Jeremy Corbyn, Prentis addressed the implications of the Bill:
“Workers who spend their time caring, serving, saving lives are under attack. This dedicated group of workers are being denied the right to strike. This Bill is a missile aimed at public sector workers.
They are being criminalised and victimised by an establishment determined to destroy trade unions. We are now subject to the biggest crackdown in thirty years and we have to sign up in blood to oppose this Bill. They can’t justify it politically or morally. Only our movement can stand up to them.
When they condemn Iran and other places for human rights transgressions, they cite restrictions on trade union rights. Trade union rights are human rights and that’s the territory we must fight on.”
Destroying the voice of working people
Head of Equalities and Employment Relations at the TUC, Sarah Veale, spoke in place of Frances O’Grady. She began: “This Bill is one of the nastiest pieces of legislation since Thatcher and Tebbit. Their law is still on the statute books but today’s Tories want to destroy the voice of working people.
By attacking political funds, the Tories are attacking the Labour Party. Unions are already heavily regulated. It’s already difficult to organise industrial action now. Despite all this, there is more to come.
Since 1973 there has been a ban in the UK and most EU countries on using agency workers during strikes. Even Thatcher stepped back from that reform. They’re trying to sneak this change in by using secondary legislation in order to avoid scrutiny.
What other part of society has to get permission from the police to send a Tweet? The Tories want to criminalise peaceful protest.
Taken all together, the Bill introduces enormous amounts of red tape. To coordinate this, the Certification Officer will now have investigatory powers.
The TUC will work to build mass opposition to this Bill. We’ve called a national demonstration at Tory conference. We need to make sure that this demonstration is as big as possible. On 2 November we will have a major rally and lobby of Parliament. We have to use every means at our disposal to defend the right to strike.”
An important time to strike
Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of PCS began by asking “what are we going to do if the Bill passes? There has never been a more important time to strike.
There are real terms cuts in pay and benefits. People will be driven into poverty even though they’re in work. The most effective way to stop austerity is to all take strike action together.
If we just have fine speeches and two months of campaigning, the Tories will get their Bill. If we mobilise the six and a half million union members, we can stop them. We need to mobilise our members now.
When it comes to attacking the poor or trade unions, the Tories’ twelve seat majority will be solid.
By seeking to amend the Bill, we can draw out the Tories’ hypocrisy. We should put in amendments on workplace balloting.
Wouldn’t it be a lot easier to do all of this if we had Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader?
We need to prepare for the worst case scenario. We’ve been here before. We need to understand what we can concentrate on. The thresholds are undemocratic but it seems to me if we can organise, we can overcome these thresholds. If we do beat the thresholds then the really sinister stuff come into play.
I say tonight: if this law comes in and the first strike takes place, we should commit ourselves to having thousands of people on the picket line. We should say we’re not letting people in to undermine this strike.
If we can’t stop this Bill, the campaign isn’t over.”
Breaking international law
John Hendy QC, standing counsel for a number of trade unions and a key figure in the IER spoke next. “The Bill is not going to be defeated by lawyers. The other side of the coin is that the Bill can only be defeated by trade unions.
We defeated the Combination Act in 1824. It was the trade unions who mobilised against the Act of 1871. It was the trade unions who founded the Labour Party to end the passing of the Trades Disputes Act in 1901. It was the trade unions who put Atlee into power to ensure the reversal of the 1927 Trade Union Act.
In 1971, the Tories passed the Industrial Relations Act. The trade union movement killed this Act. It became unworkable.
Thatcher’s seven Acts to denude the trade unions of rights – Acts that were not reversed under thirteen years of Labour government – are still in place. We cannot make that same mistake again.
We haven’t seen this Act in its final form. All we have is the Bill. You can be sure that further amendments will be added.
We have set out areas where the Bill breaks international law. The proposed changes are completely disproportionate. There is no problem with strikes in British industrial relations, apart from there not being enough of them!
The cumulative effect of the measures in the Bill makes it disproportionate and it is quite clear that this is part of a wider policy to exclude trade unions from the economic, political and industrial life of this country.”
The context of austerity
Len McCluskey, Unite General Secretary, opened his comments as follows: “Since the defeat on May 7th there have been a series of marches and demonstrations that have blown my mind. Tens of thousands of young people are involved.
The Trade Union Bill needs to be seen in the context of austerity.
The right wing media and the Tories constantly tell us that trade unions are irrelevant. If that’s the case, why attack us? Of course we’re not irrelevant. Organised labour is the only force that can stop them.
My union has taken out a requirement from our rule book for us to act within the law. Not because we’ve become anarchists but because we’ve asked ourselves is it feasible to defend ourselves within the law.
Coming to meetings like this is one thing. Going out and convincing our members is another.
We face a class war and a gauntlet has been thrown down by this government. The next six to twelve months are going to be critical. We will use every means to resist this Bill.
The likelihood is that this Bill will be passed. Then the question is, what do we do about it? We have to raise the consciousness amongst our members and the public.
We are not the enemy within, we create the wealth in this nation and we have to stand and fight.
The TUC has got a difficult job. Some unions would never contemplate breaking the law. But a time has come when we have to protect ourselves.
We need to be prepared to defy the law in order to protect our human rights.”
John McDonnell MP – Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership election agent – began with this pledge: “If Jeremy is elected, when we go back into Parliament there will be total opposition to this Bill. If it goes through, when we win the next election we will repeal this legislation. We will introduce a Trade Union Freedom Bill to scrap the Thatcher laws. We will give trade unionists back their basic human rights and civil liberties.
Don’t think what’s been published so far is as far as it goes. The Tory back benches are drafting amendments as we speak. The Tories are coming for us because they want to destroy the welfare state. They see the next five years as the best opportunity they have for destroying the trade union movement.
We need to use every mechanism we can to defeat this Bill. We can defeat this Bill but if it goes through and a single trade unionist is arrested then for the first time in many years Labour MPs will be out on the streets, on the pickets.
When the law is unjust, we have to campaign against it. If that takes us outside of the law then so be it.”
Finding common cause
Dave Ward, recently elected General Secretary of the CWU, started by asking us to “think about the consequences of the Bill”.
“It must be seen in the context of the balance of forces in the world of work and society in general. When I started work as a telegram boy in 1976 I had job security. I lived in Lambeth and was able to get a council flat. When I had children, I had something.
When I think about these things and look at the picture now, these weren’t big things, they were taken for granted. These things were taken away from us because we couldn’t coordinate that trade unions. It’s all gone.
The world of work isn’t just full of zero-hour contracts but short-term, self-employed work. Contracts without holiday pay or sick pick. Now they want to attack us as if we’re out of control. The criminals here are the people who have ripped away our rights. Their time must now come.
Our struggle needs to go on beyond what’s already been discussed. I propose that the trade union movement finds a common cause to fundamentally shift the balance of forces; that we all sign up to the same collective bargaining agenda; that we think about a strategy to mobilise all of our members.
The trade union movement is about struggle but we need to fight for positive things.”
As an example, Dave described the CWU’s ‘People’s Post’ campaign to ensure that no matter who owns Royal Mail that a service is in place to meet the needs of users.
Dave Green, National Officer of the FBU began by pointing out that the “FBU gets a lot of attention in the Bill. Not by name but by insinuation.” A significant section of the Bill deals with ‘intimidation’ and Dave comprehensively dismissed the case studies cited in the Bill, suggesting that large parts of the examples deployed to justify criminalising ‘intimidation’ were fabricated.
Keith Ewing from the IER closed the rally: “We’ve been here before. In my lifetime this is the fourth attack on trade union freedom and the fourth attack on the consensus reached in the post war period.
The first attack came from Labour in 1969. That was defeated. In Place of Strife didn’t make it into law.
The Industrial Relations Act in 1971. The Tories won the 1970 election and introduced a wide-ranging attack on secondary and unofficial action. Within a year, the Tories had given up as a result of trade union pressure.
The attack of the Thatcher era was long, sustained and bruising. It lasted from 1980 to 1993 and beyond. We weren’t so smart then. We walked into traps, injunctions and sequestrations. We’ve got to learn the lessons from these mistakes and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
What are the lessons?
Unity – in 1969 when we took on Wilson and beat him there was unity between the industrial and political wings of the labour movement.
What defeated the Industrial Relations Act? Unity, yes. But leadership from the TUC working with the rank and file. Together, they prevailed.
If we learn these lessons then we can win this argument. We have a challenge. Are we going to allow Cameron to be Heath or Thatcher?
In my view, there are three factors playing in our direction.
The economic debate: They want to impose a 1% limit on pay rises. The Bank of England says that inflation is about to rise. This will affect everyone.
The political scene: Scotland is a very different place today. The Tories have one MP, 10% of the vote and no mandate. They attempt to rule Scotland as a colonial authority. Scotland is a tinderbox. The Trade Union Bill could be for Cameron what the Poll Tax was for Thatcher. Scotland is a real problem for the Tories.
The law: We live in a difficult legal culture with an informed view of International Labour conventions and human rights. There are features of the Bill that are very vulnerable to legal challenge.”
A Direct and blatant assault
Writing of the Trade Union Act of 1984 Ken Coates and Tony Topham labelled it the “most direct and blatant assault on trade union powers in British history” 5
. The contributors to the Kill the Bill rally – and the contents of the Trade Union Bill 2015, itself – spelled out the extent to which the same can be said now. The similarities between the 1984 Act and the 2015 Bill extend beyond their respective contents and intentions. Both were introduced in the aftermath of electoral defeats for Labour; at times of deep structural ‘reform’ at the societal and economic levels and when the labour movement – organisationally and in the domain of ideas – was and is not at its strongest.
In broad terms, those who addressed the rally – from the rostrum and from the floor – were united in calling for the labour movement to throw everything it has into the campaign to stop the Bill. Importantly, the rally was called by a variety of organisations and campaigns within the movement and benefited from hearing a wide range of views on tactical questions. This level of unity must be maintained, and for very good reason.
As Keith Ewing and others pointed out, unity between the industrial and political wings of the movement resulted in the squashing of In Place of Strife and its absence in 1984 resulted in defeat.
All four candidates for the Labour Leadership election have made their opposition to the Bill clear and whoever wins, the trade unions will have to work with the new leader and the wider Parliamentary Labour Party. However, sections of the PLP will be initially more energetic on this question than others and given the urgency mandated by the governments timescale for implementation, it is right that the trade union movement works with these MPs immediately to build the momentum of the campaign.
To complement coordination between trade union leaders and actively supportive MPs, local and regional trade union and Labour Party organisations should be encouraged to consult, question and lobby PLP members to ensure political engagement across the Opposition benches.
Again on the local and regional front, trade unions and campaign groups should take steps to form campaigns and committees against the Bill. Paul Mackney, former General Secretary of NATFHE and now a leading campaigner in the Greece Solidarity Campaign, spoke from the floor of the rally to remind us of the call for ‘Councils of Action’ that emerged from an Institute for Workers’ Control conference held when the Industrial Relations Bill was first proposed in 1970. Regional TUCs, trade councils, union branches and campaigns like local People’s Assembly groups should be involved in such coordination.
Efforts at united coordination at the national and local level that combines all those with the strategic aim of defeating the Bill through mobilisation of the entire labour movement – regardless of tactical differences – is not only a necessary step in the campaign against the Bill but would mark a major forward step for the movement as a whole. Such an achievement, spurred on by what is in effect an emergency situation, would enable united approaches to a whole series of basic questions faced by the labour movement ranging from the welfare state, unemployment, privatisation and political representation.
1.[Francis Maude: Speech to Conservative Party Conference 2014.]↩
2. [The Queens’s Speech 2015] ↩
3. [See ‘Guide to the Trade Union Bill 2015’, prepared by Dr Alan Tuckman for the Nottingham Trade Union Forum for a summary of the Bill’s contents]↩
4. [All quotations from contemporaneous notes made by the writer at the rally]↩
5. [Coates, Ken and Topham, Tony (1986), Trade Unions and Politics, Blackwell, pp. 107-108]↩