In 1997, shortly before winning the general election, Tony Blair boasted in an interview with the Daily Mail (26 March 1997) that Britain “would still have the most restrictive union laws in the Western world” with Labour in power.
That remained true until Labour lost office in 2010, but since then the law have become more restrictive.
The restrictions around ballots, picketing, solidarity action, political funds, and others, means the potential of our unions is shackled. Employers have taken advantage of that.
According to the Institute of Employment Rights: “On average British workers work more hours per week, more days per year, more years before they retire, after which they receive lower levels of pension than most of their European counterparts...
“The CEOs of British companies earn a far higher multiple of their workers’ average earnings than in any other European state. Britain has a higher proportion of so-called ‘self-employed’ workers, and of workers doing agency work, temporary work, on zero-hours contracts, and part-time workers who want full-time work.
“British workers have less entitlement to redundancy pay, sick pay, and maternity pay than most European workers.”
Figures from the Resolution Foundation show that in 1977 wages for the bottom half of workers got £16 of every £100 of value generated by workers’ labour. By 2010 that figure had fallen to £12. Of the remainder in 2010, £39 went to the top half of employees (some to better-paid workers, some to salaried bosses); £11 was paid by employers in the form of social contributions (so largely filtered through to workers); and an increasing slice, £39, went to businesses and owners in the form of profits (bit.ly/res-fd).
Over the same period, the share of national income taken by the top 10 per cent of salary-earners increased from £12 per £100 of GDP to £14. With bonus payments included, the bottom half’s take fell from £12 to £10, and the top 10 per cent’s take rose from £14 to £16.
Countries with high union membership tend to have lower levels of inequality. Trade union members tend to have higher pay than non-union members. Given the freedom to organise, workers can and will push back against employers and the government. Securing (and defending) a better deal for workers means giving us that freedom.
In 2015 Labour Party conference voted unanimously for a motion committing the next Labour government to “legislate for strong rights to unionise, win recognition and collective bargaining, strike, picket and take solidarity action.” Labour Party conference in 2017 went further and committed Labour to “repeal the Trade Union Act and anti-union laws introduced in the 1980s and 90s”. But too often Labour is silent on these policies, or front bench MPs contradict them.
Has our movement quietly accepted these chains will stay? A conversation is urgently needed about not only the effect of the restrictions, and how to maintain union organisation despite them, but also about how to get rid of them. We need to discuss now what we want the next Labour government to do, and organise to hold them to account.
Workers′ Liberty is supporting an initiative by trade union activists associated with The Clarion magazine to get that conversation going. Get your union branch or Labour Party to support the Free Our Unions statement.