Labour policy on the anti-union laws: build back better!

By Sacha Ismail

At a recent meeting organised by the Labour Representation Committee, I asked speaker Laura Pidcock, former shadow Secretary of State for Employment Rights, about Labour’s policy on the right to strike during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

I asked why, in terms of scrapping anti-strike laws, the party generally limited itself to repealing the 2016 Trade Union Act, saying little about the many earlier anti-union laws or leaving things vague. Laura’s response was that Labour’s policy on workers’ rights was much broader than just scrapping the Trade Union Act. That’s undoubtedly true, but it didn’t answer the question, as I intended it at least.

Labour’s 2019 “Workers’ Rights Manifesto” can be read here. It is along the same lines as the sections on workers’ rights in the party’s main manifesto, but goes into more detail. As even a quick scan makes clear, the party did indeed put forward a wide range of policies to strengthen both individual workers’ rights and the position of trade unions. It was good – but nonetheless its policy specifically on the right to strike was inadequate.

Without a strong right to strike and the repeal of all anti-union laws necessary to achieve this, many of the other changes Labour advocated – for instance on reinstating and expanding collective bargaining – would be difficult to achieve and/or would not empower workers to organise and fight, at least not enough. (For what Free Our Unions said about the Labour manifesto in 2019, see “Labour’s manifesto and the right to strike: a welcome step forward, more to fight for”.)

• Like the general manifesto, the Workers’ Rights Manifesto went further than the party leadership had previously. It said it would “Repeal anti-trade union legislation, including the Conservatives’ undemocratic Trade Union Act 2016, and create new rights and freedoms for trade union unions to help them win a better deal for working people, negotiate better pay and quality of working life and enable people to organise in their workplace if they wish to.” That’s good but unclear. Would a Corbyn government have left some anti-union legislation in place?

• It promised to “Remove unnecessary restrictions on industrial action and allow people to take industrial action through their trade union when they feel it’s the only option left against bad and unreasonable employers.” Leaving aside the apologetic tone, which restrictions are “necessary”?

• It promised to “Allow workers and trade unions to use secure electronic and workplace balloting.” That would be an improvement, but the inescapable implication is that strict controls on how workers decide to take action would remain. There would be no return to workers and unions being able to decide themselves how to take decisions on action, as before the 1980s. No voting more informally in meetings, or walking out without warning the employer.

• The WRM said nothing about the right to take action in solidarity with other workers, or for demands on political issues like climate change. It clearly implied that these kinds of actions would remain illegal.

Other pledges, such as “restrict[ing] the grounds on which employers can resort to legal action based on technicalities to override legitimate, democratic decisions taken by the people who work for them”, were of course welcome.

All this was much, much more limited than the policy demanded by repeated Labour Party conferences, by numerous unions and by TUC Congress 2019. (And by the wider Labour membership, according to opinion polling.)

As Keir Starmer seeks to roll back from the pro-worker, pro-trade union policies advocated by the party in 2019, the left must unite to defend them. But we should “build back better” by fighting to put Labour policy on a clearer, more solid basis when it comes to the right to strike – in line with the position agreed by the democratic structures of the party and the unions.

First of all, repealing all the anti-union laws, not just the Trade Union Act, needs to become the established position of the Labour left.

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