A charter of workers' rights

Submitted by on 11 January, 2003 - 5:59

By CWU member Pete Keenlyside

"A modern, efficient employment relationship founded on international standards will involve a change in the balance of power between employer and worker. It will displace the Victorian notions of "master and servant" which continues to influence government and employer thinking. Laws which have done so much to embed management prerogative, dis-empower workers and restrict unions' ability to represent their members effectively must be repealed. In their place must be laws which guarantee the fundamental rights of trade unions and trade unionists, laws which give workers the essential protections and entitlements which are necessary in a modern society."
These are words from a book published not over 100 years ago or under some military dictatorship but in this country in 2002. It is a continuing scandal that over five years into a Labour government, the laws that deal with the relationship between workers and their employer in this country are the most one-sided of any developed country and are routinely condemned by bodies such as the International Labour Organisation, the European Court of Human Rights and the United Nations.

In this country, there is no right to strike. For a strike to be declared legal, a ballot has to take place under rules determined not by the union but by the government. These rules are designed to make it as difficult as possible to get a yes vote. Workers can only take industrial action over so-called trade or contract issues. CWU members, for instance, can't actually strike over decisions to privatise parts of the industry as this is considered political. Workers can only take action against their own employer, so Royal Mail staff can't come out in defence of cleaners.

Strikers can only set up a picket line outside their own place of work, so if the employer moves the work elsewhere, hard luck! In any case, picket lines are limited to six and it is illegal to try to prevent someone from crossing.
Fail to comply with any of this and the dispute would be declared illegal. Then, anyone taking part leaves themselves open to instant dismissal and the threat of the costs of any damage incurred. In addition, even if the strike was legal in the first place, after eight weeks the employer is perfectly entitled to dismiss you if you don't go back, as happened recently at Friction Dynamics in North Wales.

So, the decision of the Institute of Employment Rights to publish the book "A Charter of Workers Rights" should be welcomed by all those who support effective trade unionism in this country. As you would expect from contributors that include prominent lawyers and academics active in the field of labour relations, there is a large amount of detail on how the laws are tilted against trade unions and their members. The book argues strongly that these should be scrapped and laws that protect workers' rights put in their place. These would include:

  • The right to form and join a trade union and not to be discriminated against on grounds of union membership.
  • The right of a union to uphold its own rulebook, to spend its funds and to conduct its activities free from employer and state influence.
  • The right to take industrial action in defence of workers' occupational, social and economic interests without being in breach of contract and without threat of dismissal.
  • The right to be represented by a trade union, the right to collective bargaining and to participate in decisions at work.

The book also demolishes the myth that draconian labour laws are good for the economy and points out that in many companies workers are expected to give their full commitment to the business whilst managers give little or nothing in return. That hardly makes for a happy or productive workforce.

Also dealt with are issues such as the minimum wage and work time regulations, training and development, health and safety at work and equality and discrimination. Finally, the case is made for the proper enforcement of labour laws and remedies for where grievances are upheld. At the moment, even if you win a case for unfair dismissal at an Employment Tribunal, the employer has no obligation to obey an order to re-instate you.

In reading the book, two minor quibbles come to mind. In places it can be quite hard going and there is a tendency to swamp the reader with details. But then it has been put together by lawyers and lecturers. Secondly, although the book is strong on suggestions about what it would like to see happening to labour laws, it is silent on how this is going to come about. Certainly, we can't expect Tony Blair to help us on this. He has boasted that even with new legislation, "The changes that we do propose would leave British law the most restrictive on trade unions in the western world."

Instead, it is left to campaigns such as the United Campaign to Repeal the Anti-Trade Union Laws to try to end this state of affairs, which is both an embarrassment and a disgrace to this country. The Campaign is supported by the CWU, 13 other national unions and a substantial number of Labour MPs. Activities are planned over the coming months and there is talk of the TUC organising a national demonstration on this issue on May Day 2003.

Having said that, though, the book is still well worth reading by all those who care about our rights as trade unionists. It will certainly give you the arguments to win over those in our movement who are still comfortable in their chains and have yet to be convinced that drastic change is needed.

A Charter of Workers' Rights, edited by Keith Ewing and John Hendy. £30 from Institute of Employment Rights, 177 Abbeville Road, London SW4 9RL.

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