The so-called review of industrial relations announced by the Tories on 17 November is a build-up for new attacks on the right of trade unions to take effective action to defend their members. It is also another stage in the Tory campaign against union-Labour links.
As a manufactured pretext for the review, the Tories have latched on to Unite’s “leverage” tactics, especially its use of those tactics during its recent dispute with Ineos in Grangemouth.
Leverage basically involves trying to put an employer with whom a union is in dispute under pressure from its business partners, ‘‘stakeholders”, investors, clients — and just about anyone else who can add to the pressure on the targeted employer.
It is not a substitute for union organisation in the workplace, but complementary to it. And Unite, which has used leverage tactics more than any other union, boasts of its success is forcing concessions from employers.
In the free-for-all witch-hunt about Unite’s dispute with Ineos, the Tories and their allies in the media denounced Unite’s leverage campaigning as thuggery, bullying, harassment and intimidation.
The review’s terms of reference include investigating “the effectiveness of existing legislation to prevent inappropriate or intimidatory actions in trade disputes … (and) the alleged use of extreme tactics in industrial disputes, including so-called ‘leverage’ tactics, and whether the response in terms of law enforcement has been appropriate.”
In plain English, this is a recipe for introducing yet more anti-union laws (to place even more restrictions on what actions a union can take during an industrial dispute) and yet more public order offences (for the same purpose).
That the review will be used as a launch-pad for new anti-union laws is underlined by references by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude to “industrial intimidation tactics, including attempts to sabotage businesses supply chains.”
Any union which is serious about winning an industrial dispute will maximise pressure on the employer. This includes hitting its supply chains. In fact, prior to the first wave of anti-union legislation in the 1980s, this was seen as a simple — and entirely legal — matter of solidarity action
The other government member to whom the review will be presented is Business Secretary Vince Cable. Cable is claiming that he should be given credit for making the review supposedly more “balanced”, because it will look into employers’ behaviour as well as that of trade unions:
“I have agreed to a proportionate and rational review of industrial disputes, including leverage and other tactics used by both unions and employers. There are rogue unions but there are also rogue employers. This government will tolerate neither.”
According to the “Liberal Democratic Voice” website (“The most-read website by and for Lib Dem supporters. Not paid for by trade unions or millionaires”):
“This is another example of how Liberal Democrats contribute to making the government much fairer and more even-handed than the Conservatives or Labour could ever manage alone.”
But the law is already massively biased in favour of employers and against trade unions. It is entirely lawful for rogue employers to act as rogue employers. The government not only tolerates them. It gives them legal protection.
And perhaps Vince Cable would care to name the “rogue unions” he refers to in his statement?
The review is to be carried out by Bruce Carr QC, an employers’ representative, and a trade union representative. Unite has effectively called for a boycott: “This review is nothing more than a Tory election stunt which no trade unionist will collaborate with”. It remains to be seen whether that militant stand sticks.
Carr is eminently suited to the role he has been allocated.
He represented British Airways when it applied to the courts for an injunction to prevent Unite members from going on strike in their dispute with the company. And he represented British Airways again when Unite took the company to court on behalf of 5,000 members for alleged breach of contract.
But it is not just employers of Unite members who have been represented by Carr. When the Ministry of Justice sought, and obtained, an injunction against the Prison Officers Association to prevent it from taking strike action, it was represented by Carr.
The Con-Dem review is also an attack on union-Labour links. The union which will clearly singled out for attack by the review is Unite, the biggest donor to the Labour Party and the target of an ongoing media witch-hunt based on spurious allegations about bogus recruitment campaigns and ballot-rigging in the local Labour Party.
The Tories have already used such allegations to make all manner of posturing and self-serving demands on Miliband.
They have variously demanded that he should condemn Unite’s tactics, that he should demand disciplinary action against Unite officials and members, that he should refuse to accept any more funding from Unite, etc., etc., etc.
The Tories want to portray Unite as an organisation engaged in thuggery and vote-rigging in order to attack Labour on the basis of guilt by association. They also want to portray Miliband as too weak to stand up to the “union barons” and therefore too weak to run the country.
In all likelihood, they will make this a major issue in the run-up to the next general election. The review will present its findings in mid-2014. The Tories will then introduce anti-union legislation into the last parliamentary session before the general election.
If Labour fails to support the legislation, the media will denounce it as being in the pocket of “union barons”. And if Labour supports the legislation, it will alienate its core supporters.
Union activists need to mobilise for: a boycott of the review; opposition to the subsequent legislation, and pressure on Labour to oppose both the review and the resulting legislation.