On the first evening of TUC Women's Conference, I spoke at a fringe meeting called to promote the Trade Union Freedom Bill. Here's what I said ...
Three examples from workplace struggles of my own union, RMT, which illustrate that the anti-union laws are unfair, and also rather wacky.
Example 1. December 1998. As part of our ongoing campaign on the effects of impending Tube privatisation, RMT had balloted earlier in the year and held strikes. Then after months of talks got nowhere, it named further dates in December. Justice Sullivan granted London Underground Ltd’s request for an injunction banning the strikes for two reasons:
- Firstly, that it would disrupt London. But that is the whole point! His ruling basically said that you can’t go on strike if your action is going to be effective.
- Secondly, that too much time had passed since our last strike. ie. The union had spent too much time negotiating with the employer and not enough time striking! Let that be a lesson to union executives!
Example 2. April 2001. At this point of the anti-PPP struggle, the unions’ campaign was at its strongest, with RMT and ASLEF calling joint strikes. The Tories had previously had a law requiring unions to hand over to employers the names of every member they were calling out on strike. The New Labour government changed this to a requirement to supply information on the numbers in each grade and location involved in the strike. A judge granted LUL an injunction banning RMT’s strike because the union had not supply a sufficiently detailed breakdown of exactly how many staff each grade and location would be called out on strike. He ruled that a union should supply a spreadsheet of information, grades down the side, locations across the top, number in every box of the grid. Any error in the figures would be a reason to declare a strike illegal.
Problem 1: On London Underground, RMT has members in dozens of grades and 400+ locations. 150 staff per week change grade and/or location. It is impossible for the union to compile the required information 100% accurately, so there will always be a pretext to ban strikes.
Problem 2: The law is demanding that the union gives the employer information which the employer can use to organise scabbing and help break the strike. It is as if, when Colchester played Chelsea in the FA Cup – hardly an even contest to start with – Colchester had to send Chelsea their line-up and details of their gameplan a week before the match.
Example 3. On Midland Mainline last year, the company wanted to run trains which had two separate sections with only one guard. Problem: in an emergency situation, the guard would not be able to move from one section to the other, which could be a safety disaster. So the guards exercised their legal right to refuse to work on grounds of health & safety concerns, and refused to take trains into service unless there were two guards on board.
Union head office sought to organise official industrial action on this issue, and balloted the guards. The courts ruled it illegal, because any action would be “tainted” by previous ‘unofficial’ action taken by the guards – even though the supposed ‘unofficial action’ was in fact workers exercising their supposed legal right to refuse to work on safety grounds.
So, as I say – grossly unfair, and bizarre, too.
These examples give the lie to the idea that trade union legislation in Britain is about ‘fairness’. It is not about fairness, but about stopping us fighting back.
It does not represent ‘fairness’, it represents the government batting on the side of the employers. The bosses can get on with exploiting us at work, while the government takes care of their interests in law-making.
Another Tory argument for these laws was that they handed control of unions back to their members. What a joke – they actually have the opposite effect.
Take my Example 1. Some of us argued within the union that we should not strike on New Year’s Eve, because it hurts working-class people rather than big business, and that a new ballot would have been a good idea because it would have got reps and activists out talking to the members about the need to fight PPP. But that decision should have been up to union members, not to some octogenarian, fur-gowned, ex-public school, out-of-touch judge.
If the government really wants power in the hands of union members, then why is it that unions have to ballot in order to call a strike, but do not have to ballot in order to call off a strike?! Answer: they don’t really care about union members, only about stopping unions fighting effectively for workers.
The irony about a Labour government keeping these laws is that the formation of the Labour Party gained a huge momentum from the Taff Vale judgment, which proved to working people that they could not get political representation from bosses’ parties.
That judgment was overturned by the 1906 Trades Disputes Act. On the centenary of that Act, we are fighting for a new Trade Union Freedom Bill. It is about giving trade unions the freedom to fight effectively in members’ interests.
Take some of the issues we have been discussing, and will discuss, at this conference.
Low pay and the gender pay gap. You can strike against low pay if you like – but watch out, because after 8 or 12 weeks, you can be sacked.
Women working for agencies, or for contract cleaning or catering companies (such as Gate Gourmet), can strike for better conditions, but it is illegal for their workmates to strike in solidarity, even if they are in the same workplace, even if they used to work for the same employer before being contracted out.
Whatever the issue you are campaigning on, the issue of the anti-union laws lurks behind it – which is why we need the Trade Union Freedom Bill, and why it is a women’s issue.
We can pass all the resolutions we like, but they will remain paper policies unless we fight for them. And in order to fight for them, we need to fight for the right to fight!!
The final argument I want to address is the contention that those of us campaigning to repeal the anti-union laws are old-fashioned, wanting to go back to the “bad old days” of the 1970s, and instead we should accept ‘modern rights in modern workplaces’.
I have no desire to go back to the 70s – I’ve never liked flares, and with the exception of punk rock, it was a cultural desert. But I don’t see what’s so ‘modern’ about accepting being kept in the chains of the anti-union laws. In fact, those who want to keep these laws want to go back to nineteenth century restrictions on trade union rights. Maybe I do want to go back 30 years – but at least I don’t to go back 130!
Sometimes, we are able to break these unfair laws. Postalworkers have done so quite frequently. In my Example 2, RMT members went on strike anyway, temporarily joining ASLEF to cover our backsides.
But workers will not usually be confident or strong enough to ignore the law. So we need to change the law. We need the Trade Union Freedom Bill.
Maria Exall from the CWU Executive spoke next, stating at the outset that “We all want workers to win – that’s what fighting the anti-union laws is all about”, and that people accept the laws partly because “we don’t know how badly-off we are”.
She argued for the legalisation of urgent defensive action, pointing out that a lot of unofficial action in the Post Office is in response to management bullying.
Interestingly, Maria addressed why the right wing of the trade union movement does not seriously fight the anti-union laws. If you are a bureaucratic trade unionist, then your trade unionism is built around ‘partnership’, talks etc, and the anti-union laws are no big deal. But for democratic trade unionists like us, workplace organisation and freedom to take industrial action are essential.
We face a caricature of 1970s supposedly-pointless militancy – the “bad old days” – which excludes the experience of working-class women. But groups of women workers – including those at Critchley Labels, Gate Gourmet, Hillingdon Hospital and Magnet – have come up against the anti-union laws and show the need for legal trade union action.
It is important to make the women’s case for the Trade Union Freedom Bill and for women to be involved.
Maria concluded by emphasising the significance of the current fight for a Trade Union Freedom Bill, pointing out that 119 MPs have already signed it, which is much wider than the established ‘hardcore’ Labour left.
The third speaker was Roz Foyer from the T&G.
Roz explained that the Trade Union Freedom Bill, if passed, would have a massive impact on collective rights. It is notable that under New Labour, there has been some progress on individual rights (such as the right to be accompanied in disciplinary hearings), but collective rights have not improved and the core of the Tory anti-union laws remain.
She drew particular attention to the Bill’s attempt to rid employers of the ability to stifle strikes by:
- using ‘interim action’ ie getting an injunction against a strike on the flimsiest of grounds, knowing that even if the union wins at the full hearing, the momentum of the strike will have been damaged.
- getting an injunction on the basis of small discrepancies in the ballot which can not possibly have affected the overall result.
Roz also welcomed the move to broaden the definition of a ‘trade dispute’ to cover some forms of solidarity action, especially between workers at the same workplace who only work for different employers because of contracting-out.
Check out the website of the United Campaign for the Repeal of the Anti-Union Laws.