Against Thatcher's anti-union laws: campaign, don't snipe!

Submitted by cathy n on 31 July, 2019 - 9:26 Author: John Moloney, PCS Assistant General Secretary (personal capacity)
scrap all laws

A reply to the article by Unite activist Andy Green attacking the AWL and the Free Our Unions campaign published in the Morning Star on 26 July. See also this reply from Free Our Unions.

1997 saw the launch of the Campaign for Free Trade Unions. It was an open, democratic, rank-and-file based campaign, aimed at mobilising labour movement pressure on the new Labour government to repeal the Thatcher anti-union laws. Members of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty were central to launching that campaign.

As a report of the launch event from the time records, "the conference heard from representatives of all the key disputes taking place at the moment - Liverpool dockers, Hillingdon hospital, Critchley Labels, Magnet Kitchens, Project Aerospace, London post, and British Airways". It was keystoned by Liverpool City Unison.

Desiring and advocating unity, after a while that Campaign agreed a merger with another group in which the Morning Star and Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party were more active, to form a "United Campaign for the Repeal of the Anti-Trade Union Laws".

The early years of the Blair government were a low time for trade-union militancy, and Blair was able to placate unions with measures that eased trade-union recognition. The bulk of the anti-trade union laws remained in place.

The United Campaign and its successors have continued, but, with the influence of the Morning Star now bigger, less and less active, and less and less willing to campaign for what was the shared objective of 1997: repeal of the laws which ban solidarity strikes, large-scale picketing, mass-meeting votes for strikes, strikes without giving prior notice to the boss, etc.

I still believe in the objectives of 1997, as I believe do the mass of trade unionists. Now we have Labour Party conference policy for that repeal (thanks to efforts initiated by The Clarion magazine, which includes AWL supporters); and Labour Party leaders who sometimes, in activist meetings, say they will repeal those Thatcher anti-union laws, but in the Labour manifesto and in the mass media talk only of repealing the 2016 Trade Union Act.

I fully support the initiative, launched by The Clarion and Lambeth Unison and taken up by wider groups of Labour Party activists and trade unionists - including but very far from limited to AWL supporters - to launch a new "Free Our Unions" campaign. The Fire Brigades Union and other union bodies which have joined that campaign will not recognise it from Andy Green's description - "a front organisation for the AWL".

Andy Green does not set out clearly why he apparently opposes solidarity strikes, large-scale picketing, mass-meeting votes for strikes, and so on. Only if we abolish the anti-trade union laws can we have solidarity strikes. Therefore arguing that some laws must be retained has the same effect as not wanting those strikes. Instead, he concentrates on the AWL. This is sectarian. You don't judge a campaign solely by who is in it, you judge it by its policy platform and practice.

But let's address his arguments that AWL (1) is small (2) is a group where a designated leader's vision goes "unquestioned" and "unchallenged" (3) is devoted to splitting (4) has no record of initiating broad campaigns.

(4) falls at the first hurdle, with the example of the 1997 CFTU. The AWL's history of initiating campaigns that were not tightly-controlled fronts, but included activists well beyond the AWL's own ranks and many with differing political ideas to them, is a matter of public record. AWL members were involved in initiating campaigns such as No Sweat and more recently in establishing Labour for a Socialist Europe. There are others, in the student movement as well as the labour movement. Going further back, but a good case for Morning Star readers to think about - the campaign for the "Shrewsbury 24" building workers from 1973, initiated by AWL's forerunner Workers' Fight but refused publicity for its first months by the Morning Star.

It is also a matter of historical record that the forerunners of the AWL were expelled from the Socialist Labour League and the IS (now SWP), and pushed out of Militant (now the Socialist Party). Green sees that as proof of the AWL being "schismatic", rather than evidence that those groups were bureaucratically intolerant of internal dissent. Historians and students of the socialist movement can make up their own minds.

A glance at the public press of the AWL and its forerunners will show that it has consistently carried internal debate, with every "leader" subject to challenge. Like all far-left groups, the AWL has been involved in splits and mergers, and does indeed remain small. But Andy should also acknowledge the much diminished state of the Communist Party and Morning Star.

In 1966, the CP had maybe 35,000 members. A welter of splits, expulsions, and droppings-out later, the rump Communist Party of Britain claims just 775 members. It is common knowledge on the left that many of these members are inactive. The CPB's capacity for public campaigning activity (as distinct from winning favour with trade-union officialdom) is less than AWL's.

If Andy and his comrades don't want to take up the fight against all of the Thatcher anti-union laws, so be it. They should at least refrain from sectarian attacks against those who wish to do so. I am proud to campaign alongside the AWL in this struggle; alongside the FBU; and alongside an increasing number of labour movement bodies.

I want freedom for the unions. You should want that too.

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