This is a defining moment for the New Labour administration and their relations with the trade union movement. The government has published a long-awaited White Paper — misleadingly entitled Fairness at Work —which details its employment law proposals At the same time the Low Pay Commission has made its contribution to low pay by recommending the minimum wage be set at just £3.60 an hour or £144 a week.
Fairness at Work
Most of the proposals are not good.
- All the anti-union laws are to stay.
- A purely individual and “theoretical” right to union representation is not backed up by recognition.
Opposition to union recognition after a majority vote.
- Support for the CBI’s idea that abstentions should be counted as votes against in any ballot for union recognition, with the union required to win the votes of 40% of the entire workforce.
- No right to reinstatement if unfairly dismissed.
- No employment protection for first year of any job.
- A ban on strikes for union recognition.
Positive proposals are very minimal. However they can only be defined as positive because in relation to the rest of the White Paper they aren’t so bad!
- Union recognition if it can be proved that 50% plus 1 of the workforce are members. But why accept that a simple majority vote won’t do? In reality, many, if not the majority of recognised workplaces do not have 50%+ membership.
- Removal of the upper limit on unfair dismissal awards. However that’s no substitute for giving people the right to re-instatement. And given the government thinks £3.60 per hour is a reasonable wage there is not likely to be punitive fines which force employers to reinstate after first ignoring a non-binding reinstatement order. There is no guideline schedule of fines for offenses.
- The right to representation by a trade union representative over grievance and disciplinary matters, even if there is no recognised union in your workplace.
The ideology of competition and exploitation
Fairness at Work is a quintessentially Thatcherite document. In a specially written forward, the Prime Minister sends out a reassuring message to the bourgeoisie and spells out the Neo-Conservative ideology behind the White Paper — the only proposal the Government intends to introduce on union law. Fairness at Work will “Draw a line under the issue of employment law. The days of strikes without ballots, mass picketing, closed shops and secondary action are over.” In other words, effective trade unionism will remain illegal.
Blair goes on: “Even after the changes we propose, Britain will still have the most lightly regulated labour market of any leading economy in the world.” Workers’ rights, according to Blair, are not justifiable as a way of making life more bearable for the human beings forced into wage slavery, but only as a means towards a greater end — corporate profitability. When the rights of human beings and capital come into conflict, profitability must come first. That’s why the proposals are described as: “A very minimum infrastructure of decency and fairness around people at work.”
If capital is to keep making huge profits without provoking working-class resistance, it needs to make the “very minimum” concessions possible to workers and let their union leaders share in the fruits of “partnership” at work.
Imaginary individual rights
“The White Paper is based on the rights of the individual, whether exercised on their own, or with others, as a matter of their choice.” That’s how Tony Blair sums up the New Labour dogma of individual rights. It is counterposed to effective, collective workplace organisation.
It is not possible to separate individual and collective rights. Without a strong recognised union presence in the workplace, a right to representation is virtually impossible to enforce. There will be no union on hand when the manager calls you in for a disciplinary. In such circumstances the only way for the individual to enforce this “right” to representation is for he or she to risk the sack by refusing to attend a disciplinary hearing without a union representative. In most cases the legislation will be a dead letter. In most non-unionised workplaces the only way to exercise the right is take up an industrial tribunal case after being sacked, or after being denied representation. Even the DTI admits this. A press spokesperson told us: “These proposals are dependent on good will on both sides... I suppose the only real mechanism you have for enforcing the right to representation is to take the employer to an Industrial Tribunal for unfair dismissal if management don’t go through the proper procedures.”
Most of the other individual rights contained in the White Paper, such as the extension of maternity and paternity rights share this weakness. All require an active, on the spot, union presence to enforce them. At the moment all these proposals will tend to do is make lawyers very rich by giving them more cases to prosecute through the IT system. We are for an Industrial Tribunal system, but a strong workplace organisation is a far more preferable first line of defence.
Moreover the White Paper puts bosses’ rights above workers’ rights. For example employers retain the right to ignore the decisions of an Industrial Tribunal and refuse to reinstate people found to have been unfairly dismissed. Thus, workers have to accept the decisions of an IT, but bosses don’t.
Democracy at work?
The outrageous proposal to limit union recognition to places where we can get 40% of the total workforce to vote for it is the most well known aspect of this package. Such restrictions, if applied to parliamentary representation, would have made it impossible for Labour to form a government after the 1997 general election, as only 31% of the total electorate voted for it.
The government have not specified how management could win a de-recognition ballot. And so the suspicion has to be that a de-recognition poll will be run as a recognition ballot, i.e. with the odds stacked against the union.
Keeping the unions in chains
All the essential elements of Tory anti-union laws are still in place. This is what makes all the waffle from the trade union leaders about “protection from unfair dismissal” and “a ban on dismissing strikers” so dishonest.
l Employers will still be able to sack workers who take officially balloted strike action.
l Workers so sacked will not get re-instatement, even if found to be unfairly dismissed by an IT — unless the boss agrees to it.
l The White Paper doesn’t even guarantee that being sacked for taking part in a legal strike will be grounds for unfair dismissal. It says it may be or may not be, depending on whether or not the employer “acted fairly and reasonably taking into account all the facts of the case.”
l It will remain illegal to ballot for a strike in support of workers sacked for taking unofficial action.
l The proposals will not prevent further lock-outs like those at Critchley Labels, the Liverpool Docks or Wapping.
A mockery of the minimum wage
Even the normally slavishly loyal National Executive of UNISON has been forced to admit that the disgracefully low level at which the minimum wage has been set undermines the purpose of a minimum wage. Their resolution to this year’s UNISON conference admits that; “The £3.60 per hour rate will not benefit enough low paid workers and potentially threatens the better minimum rates UNISON has negotiated for its members.”
If that is the case — and it is — this question arises: why did the union representatives on the Low Pay Commission sign up to this terribly low figure?
According to the bureaucrats there was no alternative. If two different reports had been issued by the Low Pay Commission the minimum wage may not have been implemented at all. If you believe that, then....
The reality is that the union leaders are now so desperate for some acknowledgement of their role that they will accept the crumbs Blair is offering them.