A bad pact with Blair

Submitted by AWL on 17 August, 2004 - 12:04

The hope that the 'big four' trade unions - TGWU, Amicus, GMB, and Unison - were on a direct collision course with the Blair Labour Party was knocked back at the 23-25 July meeting of New Labour's National Policy Forum discussing the manifesto for the next general election.
The Blairites made what union leaders have described as 'substantial' concessions to the unions, and the unions agreed not to take a minority report to the Labour Party conference at the end of September. The conference will now face a take-it-or-leave-it vote on a document of 'concordat' between the New Labour leadership and the big unions.

The government leaders promised to legislate to ensure that employees will be guaranteed 20 days' paid holiday in addition to Bank Holidays. This will bring British workers up to the European norm.

They say the 'two-tier' workforce in public services will be phased out. Striking workers will be legally protected from dismissal for 12 weeks, where now they are only protected for eight.

These are being touted about the labour movement as major 'concessions'. Are they?
The promises on paid holidays and on ending the two-tier workforce will, unless Blair reneges on the agreement, bring worthwhile benefits to workers. Legal protection for striking workers for an additional four weeks may be helpful to some strikers. But measured against what workers and the labour movement needs, all this is pretty miserable.

One way of measuring the 'concessions' is, what do the employers think of them? John Cridland, deputy director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, said that the package "left things roughly where they are… no totemic breakthrough".

Take the additional four weeks' protection for strikers. Not all that many strikes are likely to last for more than 12 weeks - or indeed, for eight. But some do. Therefore, the four week 'concession' by Blair is only one side of it. The other is that the unions 'conceded' the principle that the employers should still have the right to sack strikers.

Trade unions are in the business of bargaining, and they bargain within the parameters of capitalism. That is what they did. But here they bargained within acceptance of the right of employers at some point to sack striking workers - and with a 'Labour' government determined to uphold and defend that principle. The big 'concession' here was made by the trade unions.

Bargaining with the Blair-Brownites like that, instead of blasting them for keeping the Tory anti-union legislation on the statute book, is not good enough.

And yet the union leaders have, perhaps, started to show themselves what they can do if the 'Big Four' coordinate their efforts and kick even a little gritty trade-unionist sand in bully-boy Blair's face. That is a lesson the rank and file will learn too.

As we showed in the editorial in the last Solidarity, rank and file pressure was one of the factors pushing the trade union leaders into making militant, angry noises against Blair and his outright anti-labour and anti-working-class government.

We should keep up that pressure on the union leaders. The signs are that they will want to spend from now to the General Election backing 'New Labour' - the Tories in power - so as to keep out the other Tories. But it may not be a smooth ride. Many of New Labour's back benchers are continuing to make angry noises against the Government. It should not be a smooth ride.

Will the unions stick to such decisions as the GMB's to finance only candidates of the union's choice from the New Labour list? Trade union members should demand that they do.

All in all the most important aspect of the New Labour Policy Forum is not the quality of the 'concessions' won by the unions, but the fact that what little was won, was won by trade-union belligerence. The fight, the rousing-up of trade-unionist anger and hostility to the Blair-Brown Tories who control the 'Labour' Party, that is the most important thing from the point of view of restoring the political labour movement.

The single most striking evidence of how much the union leaders - despite their recent talk of fighting Blair - still lack self-confidence and self-belief is the Tory anti-union laws. Blair is determined to hold on to those laws, but afraid that they may be undercut by the norms of trade-union rights in other countries of the European Union. The union leaders have not demanded the repeal of those laws.
They have not demanded that this 'Labour' government restore the right, taken away by the Tories in the 1980s, to take sympathetic strike action.

Trade unionists should raise a clamour in the unions for them to demand full trade union rights - now! The unions should canvass MPs for support on this, and withdraw all financial help from MPs and candidates who will not pledge to join the fight for an end to the Blair-Tory anti-union legislation.

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