Back in March, at the Women’s TUC, GMB General Secretary John Edmonds warned Tony Blair that the unions would organise a Countryside Alliance-style mass demonstration if he didn’t deliver what the TUC wanted on union recognition and the minimum wage. Three months later, the New Labour Government has not delivered what union leaders want, but John Edmonds has gone all quiet.
When confronted by the media about the proposed £3.60 per hour minimum wage, the trade union movement’s self-styled leading intellectual refused to comment on the grounds that he hadn’t read the full report and scurried off into the Park Lane night. Strange indeed.
Edmonds had been attending the same CBI banquet as Tony Blair, who was somewhat more forthright. In his speech, the Prime Minister told the assembled company directors, personnel managers, journalists and trade union general secretaries that the minimum wage had to be set “sensibly” (at £3.60 per hour!) and that young people were to be excluded from its application. Blair recommended his government’s White Paper on union rights, by reassuring the assembled gentry that Britain would still have the most restrictive union laws and the least protected working class of any developed country!
Edmonds’ response to this display of hard-nosed neo-Thatchersism was to concentrate on the main business of the night — his five course meal. It was like watching a dog licking someone’s hand.
The TUC’s official response has been embarrassing. A press release from Congress House welcomed the White Paper — Fairness at Work — a total of ten times and warmly welcomed it, twice. All criticism was of the “however, despite these important changes there is still some concern about...” type.
TUC apparatchiks have even been going round playing down the possibility of a parliamentary revolt over the 40% ballot threshold by falsely claiming that it won’t be technically possible to force a vote on the issue in the Commons. The general line from the TUC leaders is word for word the same as that of the spin-doctors: “The White Paper is the first piece of pro-union legislation in twenty years”; it “restores the balance to workplace relations”.
A peculiar twist has been added to the plot by the bizarre claim repeated by The Observer, Independent and Financial Times that once the TUC had moved in Blair’s direction, when John Monks accepted the principle of a ballot threshold, [he proposed 30% which Blair turned down] Blair was then able to start making concessions to the unions.
These concessions are said to include automatic recognition if the unions can recruit 50% of the workforce in a non-recognised plant and the right of union recognition in firms with less than 50 but more than 20 workers.
Unfortunately, there are no effective barriers to the victimisation of activists while the union is trying to recruit that vital 50% of the workforce. It is no “victory” for workers in small firms of less than 20 employees to be denied union recognition.
Such facts are not something for the bureaucracy to worry about. What they are concerned with is to put on a show that exaggerates what has been won in the White Paper so as to boost themselves in the eyes of their members, while simultaneously getting the unions to lower their expectations and demands on New Labour. The aim, shared by both the TUC top brass and the New Labour elite, is to dampen down the possibilities of a serious campaign for the restoration of effective union rights. So far, they have done quite well in this regard. They have been going round making the most extreme claims for Fairness at Work. It will they say protect members from unfair dismissal and prevent the victimisation of union activists. The reality is that — even the DTI admits it — it does neither.
Perhaps the most pernicious of all the claims made by the TUC and the likes of John Prescott about the White Paper is that the legislation will be reviewed after a year or two, and at that point can be strengthened. It is hinted that there will be more legislation if labour wins the next election. All you have to do brothers and sisters is wait! This is pure fiction. Blair has made no such commitment. In fact he has said the opposite. As we point out in detail elsewhere in this magazine he wants this to be the only legislation ever introduced by New Labour on union rights.
The reality of Fairness at Work is that it is the most minimal set of legal changes a Labour Government could possibly get away with. And getting away with it is only possible because of the systematic campaign of dis-information emanating from Labour headquarters and Congress House. The task facing the serious left is to expose the lies and to mobilise the ranks of the unions to fight for free trade unions.
A powerful rank-and-file movement for free trade unions is long overdue. The single most important lesson of this sorry saga is that we will never see the restoration of trade union rights in Britain without it.