Does a “New Deal for Workers” mean scrapping the Tories’ anti-union laws?

By Sacha Ismail

On 1 May a “May Day manifesto” by John Hendy and Keith Ewing was published in the Morning Star, under the headline “A New Deal for Workers”. (Read it in text format here.) A New Deal for Workers is a slogan that has been used by the TUC and various unions, particularly the CWU; this is a new attempt to flesh it out.

There is much in the document worth comment and discussion. On the crucial issue of the right to strike and repealing the anti-trade union laws, it is weak.

Hendy and Ewing are leading lights in the Institute of Employment Rights. In recent years the IER has focused heavily on expanding collective bargaining between unions and employers, particularly over wages, terms and conditions, increasingly fading out the issue of the right to strike. (For analysis of how the stance of the IER and its milieu has evolved, see here.) The “New Deal for Workers” manifesto reflects this trend.

In almost 4,000 words, all it has to say about the right to strike is:

“Redressing the imbalance of power also requires greater legal rights for trade unions in terms of access to workplaces and the right to strike in accordance with international law – not unlimited but freed from much of the current statutory shackles.”

Nothing is said about the Police Bill or other restrictions on the right to organise and protest either.

What does “not unlimited” mean? Why doesn’t the manifesto explain? Which of the current “shackles” do the authors think should remain?

In the 1970s, before the Thatcherite anti-union laws, it was hard enough to strike and picket effectively – as the case of the Shrewsbury 24 illustrates. We need to remove all the Thatcherite restrictions put in place from 1980 and go further by replacing them with clear positive legal rights to strike and picket.

As the motion proposed by the Fire Brigades Union and passed at TUC Congress 2019 put it: “workers need strong rights to join, recruit to and be represented by an independent union; strike/take industrial action by a process, at a time and for demands of their own choosing, including in solidarity with any other workers and for broader social and political goals; and picket freely”.

We need to repeal all the laws which contradict these rights, and enshrine rights in positive legislation (“repeal and replace”).

In terms of collective bargaining, as the IER itself used to say, “collective bargaining without the right to strike is collective begging”.

The extensive systems of collective bargaining in the post-war decades, which came to cover more than 80% of workers in the UK as opposed to 25% as at present, was to a large extent brought about and shaped by a culture of militant – very often “unofficial” – industrial action. (We leave aside here criticisms of this system from a working-class point of view.) This was possible because the post-war Labour government repealed all the restrictions on strikes and organising introduced by the Tories in the 1920s – restrictions much less extensive than the current ones – and the labour movement successfully defended these freedoms in the ’60s and ’70s.

Without restoring and expanding freedom for workers to self-organise and take action, we are unlikely to win any kind of collective bargaining system that will substantially benefit the working class.

To think that, without a major revival of strikes and struggles, the working class can organise itself to defend and assert its interests effectively, let alone confront the power of the bosses and start to transform society, is unserious. The anti-union laws were introduced precisely in order to suppress such struggles and the possibility of them reviving. We should defy them when possible and necessary. They need to go – all of them.

The 2019 TUC Congress resolved: “that the General Council will ensure that these demands [the rights set out in the section quoted above and, to achieve them, “the repeal of all anti-union laws”] are central to all campaigning around employment and workers’ rights, such as the New Deal Charter” (the idea from which the Hendy-Ewing manifest has sprung).

Yet despite the clear position taken by TUC Congress (and the conferences of many individual unions, and the Labour Party), this has not happened. Not in terms of the TUC’s campaigning; or the campaigning of most union leaderships; or organisations like the IER.

The demand to repeal the anti-union laws has continued to gain ground among trade union, Labour and left activists, but evidently not yet enough to force its adoption and championing by the hierarchies of the movement – despite conference votes.

To further illustrate what seems to be the underlying disagreement, look back to 2019. In July that year, the Morning Star published an article by a close collaborator of Hendy and Ewing, Andy Green, attacking Free Our Unions. Green argued that a Labour government “could and should… restore a right to strike without necessarily making a public bonfire of the Thatcherite Acts of Parliament”. He argued for the labour movement to “reject the absolutism” of our campaign.

For our reply, by Riccardo la Torre and Becky Crocker, see here. As Matt Wrack put it replying to Green in the Morning Star:

“It is not at all clear what he means by [not having a ‘bonfire’ of anti-union laws]. Is the argument that it is technically possible to remove the legal restrictions on trade union action imposed since 1980 without actually repealing the Tory laws?

“Or is it a political argument that we should aim for ‘a’ right to strike – undefined here – but not to remove all the restrictions? If so, what restrictions should we favour a Labour government keeping?”

It’s the same sort of ambiguity and the same problem now: “not unlimited but freed from much of the current statutory shackles”.

Those who are serious about reviving and growing the labour movement as an effective instrument of working-class self-assertion must fight for the policy agreed at TUC Congress in 2019 to be campaigned for and carried out. We must fight to overturn all the anti-trade union laws, back to the very first one introduced under Thatcher, as a necessary step in winning a strong right to strike. That is an essential part of any substantial “New Deal for Workers”.

Moreover this must be proclaimed and argued for explicitly and vocally. Making the demand to repeal the anti-union laws widely understood and popular among labour movement activists is a necessary condition for making it understood and popular in society.

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