On Monday 28 September delegates at Labour Party conference voted unanimously for a motion committing the party to fight the Tories' Trade Union Bill and the next Labour government to "legislate for strong rights to unionise, win recognition and collective bargaining, strike, picket and take solidarity action."
Those words came from a motion promoted by the Right to Strike campaign, submitted by a number of Constituency Labour Parties and in complete form by two, Broxtowe and Chesterfield.
This is the first time since the early 1990s that the Labour Party has supported the crucial right to solidarity action - to strike in solidarity with other workers in struggle. During the 1997 general election, Tony Blair boasted about his plans to keep Margaret Thatcher's anti-trade union laws - which ban solidarity action, political action, flying pickets and much else that makes trade unionism effective. During thirteen years of Labour government, the trade unions never pressed for the abolition of these laws.
Trade union motions on workers' rights submitted to this year's conference said nothing about repealing the old (pre-2015 Trade Union Bill) anti-union laws, with the exception of two proposals from Unite: firstly, allowing workplace instead of postal ballots for strike action and, secondly, making the law "compliant with ILO [International Labour Organisation, a UN agency] core conventions and European human rights obligations", presumably expressed in that way to mean different things to different people.
Allowing workplace ballots would be a potentially very significant change. Unfortunately, in the "compositing" meeting where bits of different motions are forcibly stuck together, even the more left-wing unions would not accept the text from Chesterfield and Broxtowe calling for a Labour government to "repeal all the anti-union laws passed by the 1979-97 Tory governments". They had a number of excuses: we suspect the real reasons are a desire not to sound too radical, and a certain reluctance to create a situation where workers can more easily take action without reference to the law - or, therefore, to their unions' bureaucracies.
We should continue to argue for the position that the law should not limit workers' right to strike at all. Workers should be able to decide to take action without reference to any kind of legally-imposed process. We should decide our own democratic processes.
Very positively, however, the left unions, led by Unite, did accept the Right to Strike text about positive legal rights - including the right to take solidarity action.
Passing motions has limited value; words on paper are no substitute for building a strong campaign to fight for trade union rights. Nonetheless, this is real progress - and progress that would not have happened without hard work by left activists to push the position of the mass movement forward.
Speaking for the composited motion, Broxtowe delegate Pete Radcliff expressed some very important ideas (see here for the full speech):
"Sympathy action, solidarity action, political action should be the democratic right of our trade unionists. Instead they are all currently illegal.
"It is our duty to support workers who have difficulties defending themselves because of their responsibilities.
"One of the proudest actions I ever took as a trade unionist was to have taken strike action – in the steel industry before Thatcher as near as damn destroyed it – in support of nurses and hospital workers in 1981.
"The right to take such action was taken away from us during Thatcher’s onslaught on our rights.
"We should celebrate the desire of workers to demonstrate solidarity in our movement.
"We should not allow it to be remain illegal.
"Our trade union movement should have had – and should have again – the right to question and take action against the political actions of their bosses.
"Whether it be the privatisation of our services or the provision of arms and support to the prisons of the fascist, flogging and beheading Saudi Arabia – our trade unions should have the right to take action...
"Democracy is not just votes in parliament – democratic rights, trade union rights should be the right of every worker.
"Our trade unions as they move forward against this insidious Trade Union Bill need to know that this Party is behind them – and that we will restore the rights taken away from them in the days of Thatcher as well.
"Let’s be clear in our support for them today."