John McDonnell MP spoke to Solidarity about the campaign for a Trade Union Freedom Bill
Some of us have been working for trade union reform for five years. We have lobbied for change from Labour, but it has been like crying in the wilderness. The official TUC response has been to point to the legislation the Labour government has introduced, to the rights that have been won. Yet these changes and concessions have been fairly minimal. Tony Blair’s says the UK has the most restrictive trade union laws in western Europe. He is right, and that situation has been maintained.
But two things have given us a new opportunity and new reason to press for reform. The result is the proposed Trade Union Freedom Bill. [A Parliamentary “early day motion” supporting such a bill has been signed by 126 MPs].
First the Gate Gourmet dispute, which took place in my constituency, demonstrated starkly how much we need a major reform of trade union law. Trade union rights need to be regarded as basic human rights.
Second, this year is the anniversary of the reversal of “Taff Vale” [a judicial ruling which allowed employers to sue trade unions for damages]. Unfortunately today trade union rights are worse than they were in 1906. In the recent period the very existence of trade unions has come under threat.
So we have a fresh opportunity and a chance to organise a new mobilisation.
Our proposed bill will crucially allow for some solidarity action. And it is a bill built around a consensus view on this issue. In my view it is a first step towards establishing the right to strike. Everybody in the labour movement should support this bill.
There has been a shift in the major trade unions. They recognise that we can no longer go on with this situation, this lack of union rights. This shift was demonstrated at TUC Congress last year. The same mood was evident among the Labour Party affiliated unions. [Labour Conference also backed the idea of legislation guaranteeing some form of solidarity action].
However the bureaucracy in the TUC remain unconvinced of the need for major change or the ability of the TUC to persuade the government. So there is a divergence between the TUC and its affiliates. This brings to the fore a discussion about the role of the TUC and about accountability, and the outcome of that discussion is fundamental to the future of the TUC and the trade unions.
The TUC is supporting a May Day march for trade union rights. But beyond this, it is important to get the TUC to support the publishing of a draft bill, proper draft legislation with which we begin a parliamentary process. We also want TUC backing for a lobby of Parliament in the autumn.
The TUC was sceptical about the Trade Union Freedom campaign getting the support of MPs). They were wrong. This issue has had the largest support of any trade union issue. Why? Because MPs are experiencing the importance of the issue. In their constituencies they see people deprived of employment rights, facing wage cuts, being sacked, being exploited. They know there is a desperate need for radical reform.
We also need to get rank and file trade union support, focussed on Parliament. Trade unionists need to demand that MPs legislate for trade union rights.
The Bill is part and parcel of creating post-Blair agenda. Whoever becomes leader of the Labour Party will have to address this issue, and any attempt to bypass or sideline it will meet with opposition. Also key is the fight to defend and extend public services; that goes hand in hand with this fight for trade union rights. These two things will have to be fought for is the period ahead.