by Bill Butlin
As the general election approaches both the Labour and Conservative parties aren’t saying much about what they plan to do to trade unions. Why is this?
The silence reflects a pro business consensus in the two main parties, that ‘disorderly’ and ‘illegitimate’ collective action by workers is a pathology that harms business, employees and the consumer. And was it not that son of Thatcher Tony Blair himself who boasted loudly that ‘The Labour Party is the party of modern business and industry in Britain’?
Even within the context of Tony Blair’s boast that the United Kingdom’s has the ‘most restrictive’ trade union laws in ‘the western world’, the Conservatives aim to impose further restrictions on their ability to effectively represent their members. Nor does any attempt to abolish or ameliorate the debilitating effects of the existing anti-union legislation form part of the Labour Party’s agenda for government.
But the Labour Party have not always been enmeshed in a neoliberal straitjacket. There was a time in the past, before it became prone to free market ideological infiltration, when it advocated and legislated for reforms that actually benefited the trade union movement. Let’s take the 1974-1979 Labour government as an example of this. On its election the government of Harold Wilson immediately abolished the 1971 Industrial Relations Act which was the anti-union legislation of its day.
In a legislative package designed to encourage collective bargaining it created ACAS that then had the objective of encouraging collective bargaining; the closed shop was given greater legal protection meaning an additional 1.5 million workers were subject to closed shop arrangements; a statutory recognition scheme was introduced; rights to obtain information for collective bargaining purposes were given to unions; health and safety representatives were given legal status and rights; and in legislation that Jack Jones described as a “shop stewards’ charter” shop stewards were given rights to paid time off to undertake their duties and training, and legal protection from victimisation. Partly as a result of this state sponsorship union membership rose by 1.7 million between 1974 and 1979.
Key to understanding the current position of the unions is the recognition that the Tory government’s legal attacks between 1979 and 1997 have been left in place by New Labour. Fundamental to these laws was an ever increasing restriction of the trade unions’ immunity from civil action when taking industrial action. As a consequence trade unions now have to meet a long list of conditions if they are to be immune from legal action by employers.
This was decisive in the recent British Airways dispute, paving the way for the use of injunctions by any employer intending to prevent strike action. An injunction can order any industrial action to cease or be deferred. This serves as a device to impose a compulsory cooling off period. As was shown during the miners’ strike if a union ignores an injunction they can face crippling financial sanctions or the sequestration of their entire assets.
This is not the only legal device that inhibits collective action that has been retained by New Labour. Laws outlawing the closed shop, laws preventing secondary action, laws that made the disciplining of members who refused to take strike action unlawful, laws that effectively prohibit unofficial and unconstitutional action remain in place. This has created a state of affairs in which a shift in the balance of power in industrial relations has given the employer the upper hand.
The retention of laws by New Labour that have the strategic objective of shackling the unions, has been combined with a legislative program that had the intention of establishing a minimum platform of individual as opposed to collective rights. One can speculate that in the context of a worsening crisis of British capitalism, pressure to introduce further curbs on the unions’ meagre right to strike will intensify.
That’s why leading Conservatives are advocating the removal of all civil immunities from unions taking industrial action, restrictions on the right to strike in key industries or services and the requirement to achieve an absolute majority of those employed in an enterprise before a union can take lawful industrial action. The last of these proposals would make initiating any form of lawful industrial action extremely difficult.
The Conservatives are also talking about breaking up national pay bargaining in the public sector with Michael Fallon MP arguing against paying “firemen the same in Doncaster as in Dorking, or a council planner the same in Merthyr as in Maidenhead”. The always class-conscious Conservatives recognise that achieving this could well see battles in the years ahead and that the ensuing “confrontations could be as significant as those that faced Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s”.
Should we be surprised therefore that the plans being made by the Tories to take on the unions in the public sector are being ignored by the TUC who are assuming the posture and stance of the Ostrich? The ‘reasonable‘, partnership orientated Brendan Barber told BBC1 Politics Show ‘I’ve talked with David Cameron a couple of times, we’ve had fairly business like conversations’ adding ‘I’d expect a new government to want to work sensibly with the trade union movement, that’s certainly what I want to see’.
Barber may well want to see industrial peace in our times but the Tories have other plans. These are to build on the legal anti union foundations of the Thatcher years. Foundations that successive Labour governments have left in place during the last thirteen years and foundations that have undermined the trade union movements ability to mobilise their members for autonomous collective action.