Free our unions!

Submitted by Anon on 27 April, 2006 - 2:40

The Trades Union Congress is campaigning for trade union freedom from the shackles of anti union laws. It is backing a Early Day Motion in Parliament, the Trade Union Freedom Bill. (EDMs do not get time to be debated in Parliament, but serve to “flag up” issues). The TUC has made the campaign the theme of the London May Day demonstration.

These moves must be warmly welcomed by all those who want to see the abolition of the many anti-union laws that make effective industrial action difficult or impossible within the law.

It is also important to understand the limitations of the TUC’s new turn, and how we got to this point.

The TUC is not calling for the total repeal of the anti-union laws and its replacement with a charter of workers’ rights — the long-standing demand of the United Campaign for the Repeal of the Anti-Union Laws. The Trade Union Freedom Bill would be a big step forward but it would not give British workers the right to strike that European workers have. Employers would test the Bill’s limited new rights to solidarity action in the courts. In any case strikes like the ones we have recently seen in France would remain illegal even if the Bill were passed.

An open TUC campaign to change the law is an important and welcome development. Only a few years ago campaigning against the anti union laws was avoided at all costs by the TUC and the leaders of most unions. The then General Secretary of the TGWU Bill Morris took a speech at the TGWU’s Biennial Delegate Congress to oppose supporting the United Campaign against the Anti-Union Laws.

But, after many battles at union conferences, a lot of unions have been won to supporting the United Campaign. The TUC’s current support for the Trade Union Freedom Bill is largely down to the work of the United Campaign.

Even after winning the conference debates, pushing the fight against the anti-union laws up the agenda, and winning elections in many unions for candidates who had long supported the campaign, further pressure was necessary.

In 2004 the major union leaders met the Labour Party leadership to try to get some commitments in the run-up to the 2005 General Election. The result was the “Warwick Agreement”. But it was not an agreement at all — rather, a secret understanding — and it included not a single promised change to the anti union laws.

TGWU General Secretary Tony Woodley told a United Campaign meeting that the Labour leaders just said no. They would not budge.

The unions did not respond by using their voting power in the Labour Party Policy Forum or Conference, or refusing to make a deal unless the Labour leaders did budge. On the contrary, they played up the “Warwick Agreement” as good reason for trade-unionists to fall into line behind Blair and leave all other issues aside.

As usual, in the run up to the General Election, the union leaders went even more quiet than usual about demands on Labour — at precisely the time when the Labour leadership are laying out their plans.

So why has the TUC started moving now? Partly, it is that we are mid-term with an increasingly discredited New Labour Government. But the intrusion of open class struggle, in the shape of the Gate Gourmet dispute, was crucial.

Airline catering workers at Gate Gourmet were sacked en masse — on the grounds that they had struck illegally — and BA baggage handlers at Heathrow struck (also illegally) in their support.

It was a massive opportunity to punch a hole through the anti-union laws. For a week last August the scandal of the anti-union laws banning the basic solidarity our movement was built on was front-page and TV news.

If the solidarity strike by baggage handlers on 10-11 August in support of the sacked Gate Gourmet workers had held, and if the TGWU had officially backed it, then the new Labour Government would have had a choice of presiding over the courts financially punishing the TGWU or finding some way to back down. If the TGWU had stood up to the challenge in the way Scargill and the NUM stood up to the courts in the 1984/85 miners’ strike, it would have shaken Blair to the core.

In the event the baggage handlers and the TGWU were not, or did not feel, strong enough to do that. But the struggle still pushed the issue of the anti-union laws upfront in a way it had not been before.

Blair, Brown and the whole New Labour leadership are absolutely committed to a pro-business, anti-union agenda. They will not easily give way to the TUC demands for trade union freedom.

The last time the British unions defeated anti-union laws was in July 1972. Then in the face of a growing wave of strikes in solidarity with picketing dockers jailed under the Industrial Relations Act (the anti-union law of that day, in force since August 1971), a Tory Government was forced to find a loophole which allowed the “Official Solicitor” to get the pickets out of jail.

The law was used relatively little after that. When the Tories were voted in and a Labour Government came in, in February 1974, it quickly repealed the Industrial Relations Act - despite the fact that this was still pretty much the same Labour leadership that had published a White Paper, “In Place of Strife”, proposing anti-union laws, in 1969.

Outrage at the treatment of the Gate Gourmet workers, and sympathy with the baggage handlers, put the issue of the anti union laws firmly on the agenda. The TGWU raised the issue at both the TUC and Labour Party conferences in autumn 2005.

Labour Party conference voted to repeal some anti union laws and thus make some solidarity action legal. The New Labour leadership immediately announced that they would ignore the policy.

The TUC conference voted to run a high profile campaign against the anti-union laws.

Socialists should build support for the TUC campaign, while not forgetting its limitations, or the fact that it would never have started were it not for grass-roots pressure, including the brave direct action of the Heathrow baggage handlers.

We should aim to fill out the campaign into one that involves rank-and-file trade unionists, organises solidarity for workers’ struggles, and keeps up the pressure on union leaders — including the 12 trade union delegates who have a vote on the Labour Party National Executive.

If the unions stood up to Blair on this issue it would without doubt cause a crisis. Already Blairites and Brownites are threatening to weaken still further the influence of the unions within Labour’s already-undermined democratic structures. We will face the threat of state funding — enabling New Labour to assert complete financial independence from the unions — the usual demand for loyalty in the run up to the next election and, probably, pleas to give Gordon Brown a chance as new leader.

None of this must be allowed to push the battle for trade union freedom off the agenda.

Following the May Day March a lobby of Parliament is planed in support of the Trade Union Freedom Bill. Every union branch in the country should be planning to send a delegation to make the lobby the next step towards a vibrant mass campaign.

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