By a BT engineer
Apart from general statements assuring the bosses that there will be “no return to the ’70s”, the Labour Frontbench has not been keen to spell out what, if anything, they will do to remove the legal shackles imposed on the unions by the Tories.
But a glimpse of the kind of deal that is likely to emerge from top level TUC/Labour Party “consultations” was revealed to Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) activists last month when their union leadership outlined a “radical agenda” for the reform of employment law.
The CWU document was written for the most self consciously Blairite union baron, Alan Johnson, and starts off by denouncing CWU conference policy of support for solidarity action and repeal of the anti-union laws as “dangerous and wishful thinking”.
It goes on to assert that “No Labour government will reinstate the closed shop, mass picketing or unballoted industrial action, and the movement must not ask them to do so.”
Instead they propose keeping 95% of Thatcher’s anti-union laws and the great bulk of Major’s laws as well.
What do they propose by way of change? “… abolition of the 3 yearly re-recruitment sections of the 1993 Act; repeal of the repudiation sections of the 1990 Act; repeal of the ban on union disciplinary powers of the 1988 Act; lifting of the ban on solidarity action of the 1993 Act; creating a right to strike without fear of dismissal; replacing the legislation which requires seven days notice of ballots and a further seven days notice of taking subsequent action which may be authorised, with fair procedures which does not preclude properly conducted workplace ballots; removing the discriminatory powers which allow employers to pay trade union members less than non union employees for work of equal value.”
This agenda fits in well with what the front bench desire. It allows New Labour spokespersons to sound radical — they can highlight easy targets like 7 days notice for ballots and discrimination on pay — yet it offers nothing significant to the rank and file on solidarity action and unofficial strikes.
All forms of secondary and solidarity action would remain illegal. Basic solidarity, such as refusing to handle diverted mail during strikes would remain illegal.
And any local union rep who organised such action would still be open to legal attacks and the threat of the sack. Repealing the repudiation section of the 1990 Act would free trade union leaders from the threat of fines or sequestration for unofficial action but it would not make such action legal.
The “radical agenda” becomes even less radical when we look at the CWU executive’s proposed new labour laws:
“To remove Britain’s opt-out from the EU Social Chapter.” This sounds nice but means next to nothing. Article 2.6 of the Maastricht Treaty, of which the Social Chapter is but a part, explicitly rules out of EU legislation anything that concerns “pay, the right to association, the right to strike or the right to impose lock-outs.” The Brussels bureaucracy are not the seventh cavalry.
“To regulate the abuse of temporary, fixed and casual contracts.” We need a commitment to full-time rights for part-time, casual and contract workers. We need a set of universal rights for all, enforceable from day one.
“Creating a right to strike without fear of dismissal.” This is a great idea. But a right to strike must mean a right to strike, not a right to strike if you hold a ballot and the dispute is official. A right to strike has to include the right to urgent defensive action such as a walk-out to stop victimisations.
Other NEC proposals are pure waffle. For example, support for “a statutory minimum wage” without saying what level it will be set at makes a mockery of the very idea of a minimum wage.
We want to create a bulwark against extreme exploitation. That can’t be done, if we allow the employers a say in what level it will be set at.
All this adds up to a neo-Thatcherite framework of employment law, exactly the kind of thing demanded by Blair and Brown’s neo-Thatcherite economics.