"The government wants to set up a fight and smash a union"

Submitted by martin on 7 July, 2010 - 8:07 Author: John McDonnell MP

John McDonnell MP won the MPs' ballot this year to gain the right to present a "Private Member's Bill" - a proposal for legislation, given parliamentary time, coming from an individual MP and not the Government.

He has put down the Lawful Industrial Action (Minor Errors) Bill, and it is due for its second reading on 22 October.

John McDonnell spoke to Solidarity about the Bill and about the whole range of struggles coming up.

The Bill is a very minor, technical amendment to the existing legislation, to prevent employers using the law to drag trade unions into court where there has been a minor infringement of the very strict rules about balloting, and the infringement has not affected the outcome of the ballot.

It is a minor, technical change - but one which will be resisted by the Government.

The interesting thing is: what will New Labour do, and what will the Liberal Democrats do? It is quite clearly a democratic issue, about allowing the majority of people who vote in a ballot to have their say.

Eleven MPs are the sponsors of the Bill with me. Each of those MPs is the chair of a trade union group of MPs. We have the chairs of the Unite group, the Unison group, the FBU group, PCS, NUJ, NUM... The chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Tony Lloyd, is also a sponsor, and described the Bill as exactly the sort of legislation we should be promoting in a Private Member's Bill.

I'm expecting the Parliamentary Labour Party to support this Bill, which they didn't do with the Trade Union Freedom Bill.

We're taking the Bill to each of the trade unions, in the hope that they will support it, and we'll be taking it to the Trade Union Congress and then on to Labour Party conference.

We'll be organising in individual unions to build a lobby of Parliament before the Bill gets its second reading on 22 October, and then when it goes into committee we'll be lobbying all the way through to ensure that when it comes back onto the floor of the House of Commons we can have a vote to determine whether the Bill proceeds or not.

The key issue is, how does this affect the real world? The real world, over the next six to twelve months, will be a series of assaults on trade union members, their jobs, their conditions of work, their pensions, their redundancy payments, and the services they provide. In addition, to force those cuts through, there will also be an assault on trade union rights.

The Bill will put into perspective what is happening in the real world of industrial struggle. I think the climate of opinion will be there to demonstrate that there is a need for trade union rights in this country, and there is a need for the trade union and labour movement and the wider community to get behind a campaign which ensures that we re-establish trade union rights once we get rid of this government.

The only discussion of the Bill there has been with the Labour leadership contenders was at the GMB hustings. I was on the hustings there. There was a misunderstanding, I think, by some of the leadership contenders about what the trade unions were calling for on balloting procedures.

David Miliband thought that the question that came from the floor was one about scrapping balloting for industrial action and for elections of general secretaries altogether. I have spoken to him separately and explained, so I'm hoping the leadership contenders will swing behind the Bill. That's one of the questions which I hope will be asked in future hustings. But we haven't had a commitment yet from any of the leadership contenders.

I think the coalition government is seeking to provoke industrial action in the public sector, and targeting PCS in particular. They're doing it first of all around the question of redundancy payments in the civil service - scrapping the Civil Service Compensation Scheme. I think they see the PCS as almost the equivalent in 2010 of what the miners were in the 1980s. They want to provoke a strike in the hope of smashing the union and setting an example to others.

I think they will threaten new anti-union laws in order to frighten trade unionists, but I don't think that will work. I think people will react angrily against the cuts, and I think they will realise that if they do stand up and fight, then coming down the track will be new anti-union laws which may make this the last stand of the trade union movement for a generation. There's a real need for solidarity, a real need to understand the seriousness of the situation and to start mobilising.

I think a number of rank and file trade unionists, and some general secretaries, realise that.

As weeks go by, we are realising the consequences of the Government's overall policy. This week, for example, we get the cancellation of Building Schools for the Future, so 700 schools will not get modernised. The next day we get the attack on the Civil Service Compensation Scheme, which will reduce redundancy payments for many civil servants by two-thirds. After that we get revelations on the next round of cuts in jobs. Local government has started already, with Tory councils in particular laying people off. In September and October we will get the comprehensive spending review, which will lay out the details of cuts in every government department.

As the information gets out, people will be wondering about where we go from here. Now is the time for trade unionists to show some leadership - to explain to people what the consequences are, to tell that there is an alternative but they will have to fight for it.

They will have to fight in a number of ways. One is straightforward campaigning - getting the information out, holding meetings, discussing with members, a process of political education on a scale we have not seen for a long time.

The second is preparing people for different forms of action, whether it be demonstrations, days of action going out into local communities, industrial action, or other forms of action such as occupations.

This coming period is one for going through that educational process about consequences and alternatives, and the organisational training that will be needed.

Individual unions are starting on that now. The Trade Union Coordinating Group is coming together this month, in July, to talk about how to coordinate action at a local and national level.

There has been a regeneration of Trades Councils across the country. They are the ideal bodies for bringing trade unions together to look at what is happening in their local communities and how we can combat it.

The question will then be raised about how do we fight all this politically - explaining how this all happened, an analysis of capitalism itself, explaining that there is an alternative and discussing how we fight in different political structures.

Obviously, then, the question of the Labour Party comes up - how do we introduce some democracy in the Labour Party so that we can get a clear discussion and debate about the policies we need.

I don't think we should exaggerate the little flurry of new membership there has been in the Labour Party - thirty thousand, forty thousand, whatever it is now. You will get increasing membership during a general election campaign anyway, and there is an element of Liberals coming our way.

But I think the bulk of the people joining the Labour Party now are people who realise that we are in a fight. Some of them will be fighting elements - people who want to campaign and get stuck in. That gives us a real opportunity of mobilising them, and mobilising them on the basis of a thorough understanding of how we have got to this situation, the crisis of the New Labour, how New Labour prepared the grounds for the Tories, and why we must never let that happen again.

The struggle will be as much within New Labour as within the community itself.

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