On Monday 28 September delegates at Labour Party conference voted unanimously for a motion committing the party to fight the Tories' Trade Union Bill and the next Labour government to "legislate for strong rights to unionise, win recognition and collective bargaining, strike, picket and take solidarity action."
Those words came from a motion promoted by the Right to Strike campaign, submitted by a number of Constituency Labour Parties and in complete form by two, Broxtowe and Chesterfield.
This is the first time since the early 1990s that the Labour Party has supported the crucial right to solidarity action - to strike in solidarity with other workers in struggle. During the 1997 general election, Tony Blair boasted about his plans to keep Margaret Thatcher's anti-trade union laws - which ban solidarity action, political action, flying pickets and much else that makes trade unionism effective. During thirteen years of Labour government, the trade unions never pressed for the abolition of these laws.
Trade union motions on workers' rights submitted to this year's conference said nothing about repealing the old (pre-2015 Trade Union Bill) anti-union laws, with the exception of two proposals from Unite: firstly, allowing workplace instead of postal ballots for strike action and, secondly, making the law "compliant with ILO [International Labour Organisation, a UN agency] core conventions and European human rights obligations", presumably expressed in that way to mean different things to different people.
Allowing workplace ballots would be a potentially very significant change. Unfortunately, in the "compositing" meeting where bits of different motions are forcibly stuck together, even the more left-wing unions would not accept the text from Chesterfield and Broxtowe calling for a Labour government to "repeal all the anti-union laws passed by the 1979-97 Tory governments". They had a number of excuses: we suspect the real reasons are a desire not to sound too radical, and a certain reluctance to create a situation where workers can more easily take action without reference to the law - or, therefore, to their unions' bureaucracies.
We should continue to argue for the position that the law should not limit workers' right to strike at all. Workers should be able to decide to take action without reference to any kind of legally-imposed process. We should decide our own democratic processes.
Very positively, however, the left unions, led by Unite, did accept the Right to Strike text about positive legal rights - including the right to take solidarity action.
Passing motions has limited value; words on paper are no substitute for building a strong campaign to fight for trade union rights. Nonetheless, this is real progress - and progress that would not have happened without hard work by left activists to push the position of the mass movement forward.
Speaking for the composited motion, Broxtowe delegate Pete Radcliff expressed some very important ideas (see here for the full speech):
"Sympathy action, solidarity action, political action should be the democratic right of our trade unionists. Instead they are all currently illegal.
"It is our duty to support workers who have difficulties defending themselves because of their responsibilities.
"One of the proudest actions I ever took as a trade unionist was to have taken strike action – in the steel industry before Thatcher as near as damn destroyed it – in support of nurses and hospital workers in 1981.
"The right to take such action was taken away from us during Thatcher’s onslaught on our rights.
"We should celebrate the desire of workers to demonstrate solidarity in our movement.
"We should not allow it to be remain illegal.
"Our trade union movement should have had – and should have again – the right to question and take action against the political actions of their bosses.
"Whether it be the privatisation of our services or the provision of arms and support to the prisons of the fascist, flogging and beheading Saudi Arabia – our trade unions should have the right to take action...
"Democracy is not just votes in parliament – democratic rights, trade union rights should be the right of every worker.
"Our trade unions as they move forward against this insidious Trade Union Bill need to know that this Party is behind them – and that we will restore the rights taken away from them in the days of Thatcher as well.
"Let’s be clear in our support for them today."
There is much in this motion that activists in the Right to Strike campaign and on the left more generally would not find ideal, but it nonetheless represents a step forward.
Composite 3 - Employment Rights
Conference unreservedly condemns the Trade Union Bill which had its Second Reading on Monday 14th September and regards it as yet another attack on the employment rights of millions of people in the UK.
Conference acknowledges that the Bill follows a series of measures to erode employment and trade union rights in the last Parliament between 2010 and 2015 such as the Transparency of Lobbying (or Gagging Act) and the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act which has undermined workers’ access to justice. As an ideologically driven attack on trade union rights and freedoms, the Bill does nothing positive for workers but instead tips the scales considerably in favour of unscrupulous employers.
Conference notes that on 6 August it was announced that the legislation will attack public sector unions’ ability to organise by compulsorily ending check-off arrangements. Conference also believes that these measures are harmful to public sector employers, by cutting off an important revenue stream and making it more difficult for them to engage constructively with unions.
It also attacks unions’ right to fund a working-class political voice, including the vital link between unions and our party.
The proposals will:
• allow agency labour to be used to break a strike
• introduce very high thresholds for industrial action ballots
• severely restrict the right to picket and peacefully protest
• render strikes ineffective through longer notice periods
• significantly reduce union facility time and withdraw check off of union dues in the public sector
• give the Certification Officer investigatory powers into trade unions without specific reason
• require union members to “contract in” to their union’s Political Fund every 5 years significantly reducing the ability of unions to engage in political activity.
Conference believes that:
• it is almost without precedent that a government should seek to force through legislation that will undermine funding of the main opposition party.
• this is a partisan and brazenly political attack. David Cameron is targeting union and Labour funding which is fair, clean and democratic, while doing nothing about spending limits nor addressing the fact that Tories are financed by a small pool of mega-rich donors.
• workers’ right, including the right to strike, are essential to the labour movement’s ability to stand up for workers’ interests, and democracy.
• the good work undertaken by the Work and Prosperity Commission in their review of working life before the election offers a useful framework for the Labour Party to develop a policy which strengthens the employment rights of workers in the UK.
• the UK has some of the lowest employment rights protections in the OECD and regrets that our legislation does not comply with ILO core conventions.
• stronger employment and trade union rights increase productivity, reduce inequality and help create a more balanced economy and urges the Labour Party to commit to ensuring they are at the heart of a progressive Labour economic policy.
Conference calls on:
• all sections of the Labour Party to actively oppose the passage of the Bill, together with any associated secondary legislation, through Parliament.
• the Labour Party to use this opportunity to campaign for the introduction of secure workplace balloting to be used in all industrial action/strike ballots and for statutory ballots relating to internal trade union democracy.
• Labour to commit to repeal the Bill and all associated legislation/regulation when Labour returns to Government and to introduce a comprehensive package of employment rights compliant with ILO core conventions and European human rights obligations, along with the levelling up of workers’ rights across the EU; legislate for strong rights to unionise, win recognition and collective bargaining, strike, picket and take solidarity action.
The Party should unambiguously promote trade union membership and workers’ rights and to highlight the positive role played by trade unions in the UK in 2015.
Seconder: Derbyshire Dales CLP