Published 25th January 2018
Thank you very much for inviting me. A lot of what I’m going to say is summarised and explained in more detail in the pamphlet that The Clarion magazine has published. The Clarion is a left-wing, socialist, pro-trade union magazine in the Labour Party, and since the end of 2017 we’ve been working with unions and Labour Party organisations to campaign about the anti-trade union laws and workers’ rights to organise and strike, under the banner “Free Our Unions”.
The wider context is – the need to revive and build up trade unionism for the 21st century.
For decades now the labour movement has been on the retreat. The FBU has regrouped and remained strong under the assault much better than most unions; many have fallen back spectacularly. Meanwhile vast new areas of the economy have developed in which unions are very weak or simply not present. There is a whole new generation of workers in whose consciousness unions do not really figure, if they know about them at all.
The results of that situation are stark. We’ve seen a proliferation of low-paid, insecure work with very few rights. We’ve failed to fight austerity effectively, with the result that since 2008 employers and their government have successful in making the working class pay the cost of the economic crisis. Even the good things that have happened in recent years, like the left-wing surge in the Labour Party around Jeremy Corbyn, have been very much limited and shaped by the lack of a strong grassroots workers’ movement in workplaces and communities.
To turn the tide, reviving and strengthening unions is key.
How we do that is a very big debate, with many aspects, and it’s something that our movement hasn’t really got to grips with even discussing. I hope that wider question is something we’ll visit in discussion tonight. Now, it’s not the only aspect by any means, but one very important side that is not discussed enough is the question of the law – the many laws which have been introduced to make most forms of trade union action illegal and unions ineffective.
The most recent of these laws is the 2016 Trade Union Act, but there are ten others, going all the way back to Margaret Thatcher’s first year in power, in 1980. These laws – which are summarised in the pamphlet – set down difficult and complex processes for workers to decide to strike. Among other things they insist on giving employers notice, prevent effective picketing, limit what strikes can be about, and ban solidarity action between different groups of workers. In other words, much of what made for effective trade unionism in the past when unions were stronger is today illegal, or virtually illegal.
This not only prevents many forms of action, or makes them difficult, undermining workers’ and unions’ power. It has also had a very bad effect on the culture of unions. Though some unions or bits of unions still organise dynamic and effective action – those organising precarious workers like cleaners, security guards or fast food workers in London, for instance, or indeed the FBU – often strikes are reduced to fairly weak and token protests, and that is accepted as the norm. In many unions full-time officials act as enforcers rather than opponents of the law, undemocratically limiting and stifling members’ self-organisation rather than providing support and encouragement. Gradually, much of the movement has effectively forgotten that these laws exist to undermine unions or even that they exist at all. They are just treated as something natural.
Getting back to the kind of big and impressive industrial actions we saw from the late 60s to the mid-80s is very hard in this situation. But perhaps even more importantly, numerous small disputes and actions are prevented from having an impact, going very far, or even getting off the ground. That is crucial to why unions have remained weakened.
It’s not just about strikes or industrial action either. Without the threat of strong and effective action, all kinds of organising and campaigning in the workplace becomes more difficult, because the employers know that there are numerous laws there to protect them and stifle unions. They are not afraid of unions any more, as they should be!
I want to stress, it’s absolutely not that workers can’t fight and win while these laws still exist. Even at the current low ebb, there are many struggles going on which show that effective strikes and campaigns are possible, and that our unions can do better whatever the legal environment. But fighting for repeal of the anti-union laws and their replacement with strong legal rights for workers and unions, to create the best possible situation for us to organise, is surely an important part of what we need to do. Of course being determined and not letting the laws hinder our work is a good way of fighting them too.
It’s a big task, but our movement has a proud history of fighting and succeeding in getting anti-union laws scrapped. Ever since the first unions appeared, in Britain over 200 years ago, the bosses have tried to push them down. First they banned them. After a 25 year struggle, in 1824, unions were legalised but almost immediately Parliament put extreme limitations on what they could do. The language was different, but many of those restrictions are the same restrictions we face today! It took years of campaigning to change them. And the fight was necessary again and again. It will be necessary as long as capitalism exists, as long as workers have not taken society into our own hands and radically reorganised it.
In the 20th century, before Thatcher, there were three major attempts to legally limit what unions could do – the first between 1901 and 1906, the second after the defeat of the General Strike in 1926 and the third in the early 1970s. In each of these cases, unions and their supporters campaigned to overturn anti-union laws and eventually won, pushing governments into repealing them. So this time, we have unfinished business.
The difference this time, unfortunately, is that after Thatcher we got Tony Blair, who boasted about keeping literally all the anti-union laws in place. And, unlike in the earlier cases, most unions accepted this, and there wasn’t enough rank-and-file pressure to change that. So all we got under New Labour was a few minor changes to recognition procedures, and the decline of unions continued.
Now, of course, we have a very different leadership of the Labour Party, and so we have a new opening. Jeremy Corbyn has a long record of campaigning for trade union rights. But so far, although they occasionally hint at being more radical, the Labour leadership seem pretty uncomfortable about this issue. They have promised a lot of good things for workers, for instance in the 2017 election manifesto, but they do not promise to repeal the anti-union laws. Apart from anything else, without that commitment, a lot of the good things they want – like more collective bargaining and stronger unions – will be difficult to achieve or remain hollow. So we need to bring pressure.
That brings me to the campaign I’m involved in, which FBU activists have also been involved in recently. In 2017, The Clarion promoted a motion to Labour Party conference on the anti-union laws and the right to strike. Slightly to our surprise, the key bits got included in a composited motion and got passed. But even though the Labour Party is in some ways becoming more democratic, it’s still the case that a lot of what is passed goes nowhere. So we discussed and decided we needed a campaign for the policy to be carried out.
In January 2018, the AGM of Lambeth council’s Unison branch – whose secretary, Simon Hannah, is one of The Clarion‘s editors – produced a Free Our Unions statement welcoming the Labour Party motion, calling for it to be implemented and setting out some clear demands. We began by promoting that statement in union branches; so far about fifty branches and union organisations have supported it. That includes several FBU bodies, including Eastern region and West Midlands region. Then from September last year we began trying to turn it into more of an active campaign.
We held a very successful fringe meeting at the 2018 Labour Party conference, with Matt Wrack and your North West secretary Mark Rowe among the speakers. We’ve held a series of meetings across the country, and gone to speak or run workshops for a range of unions. We spoke at the FBU national education school in Sheffield. We held an organising meeting for the campaign in December and have another one next week, in South London on the 30th. We’ve continued to collect support for the statement, and it is now being raised in a number of unions nationally as well, including the FBU. We’ve also started to put motions in local Labour Parties.
We also produced the pamphlet, which summarises what the laws say, the issues, the history, the politics of it all and what we are doing with the campaign, including the text of the statement. It’s a very good educational and campaigning tool, and so far we’ve sold a couple of thousand copies, to individual activists and to union branches. I hope you’ll take a copy, have a read and consider taking more copies to distribute.
There is a lot you can do to promote this formally in the FBU, in other unions you have contact with and in the Labour Party, for instance by proposing different bodies endorse the statement. I can say more about that. But equally important is finding ways to increase workers’ and unions’ consciousness of these issues – not just the need to scrap the laws which are holding us down, but also for a much more dynamic and creative workers’ movement, the kind of movement the anti-union laws are designed to prevent. That means educating yourself about the issues, talking to other workers about them, and trying to make sure they inform your work as a trade unionist. Our campaign is designed to help with that too.
At a time when we’re so often under attack and in retreat, and it often feels difficult to organise ourselves and rouse workers for the most basic forms of defensive action, it’s easy to lose sight of the wider picture. We need to lift our eyes above the horizon.
We need to mobilise our movement to free itself from its chains, and demand that those in unions and in politics who say they speak for our class prove themselves by committing to this.