How to beat the Tories’ immoral Trade Union Bill
The National, by Jim Sillars
So, flushed with victory, determined to maintain a low-wage economy, the Tories have picked out the organisations that might challenge them: the trade unions.
The Trade Union Bill is the worst legislation that this government intends to implement, because the right to sell or not to sell one’s labour is one of the most fundamental rights in a free society.
Given that individual labour is inherently weak, that fundamental right has to be buttressed by the solidarity provided by membership of a trade union. In order to be effective for its members, a union has to be a free institution capable of setting its own rules to meet its members’ particular circumstances.
Those are the principles on which a union movement is founded. Trade unions have an ancillary responsibility to the wider society in which their members live, and they have a good history of leading and campaigning for progress in the political sphere.
Trade unionists are, like everyone else, happy to live under the rule of law. But, as history has shown, law can be used to repress the ethic and practice of trade unionism, and it is in the political arena that such law has to be contested and reversed.
I am not starry-eyed about trade unions. I was a shop steward in the Fire Brigades Union, and was head of the organisation department of the STUC in the late 1960s. In that latter role I was secretary of the disputes committee, dealing with inter-union issues of an explosive kind.
I remember in particular Alex Ferry, the leader of one delegation, appealing to his opposite number that they “were all brothers in the same movement” and receiving the retort: “Aye, just like Cain and Abel.”
I was castigated by the president and general secretary of the FBU, who were too close to the Labour government during the 1978 strike, for getting a special debate in the House of Commons on behalf of the firemen. I was told I had “just ruined the f****** union.”
I have seen general secretaries become bosses, and observed the struggle of members to re-assert internal democracy. But those basic principles of trade unionism that overcome the inherent weakness of the individuals selling their labour remain essential to all working people. We all need effective trade unions.
The facts, however, are inescapable: the Tories have the necessary majority and this will become law.
Trade unionists can, as they are doing, point to Cameron’s 37 per cent in the General Election, it is a good debating point and might make Conservative MPs uncomfortable when interviewed, but it will not defeat the Bill.
What can defeat it outside the Commons, when it becomes an Act, is how the movement responds both in its internal workings and in its relations with the general public.
Trade unionists should use their reaction to this Bill to start rebuilding the strength of the movement.
The Tories mean it to be a death blow. Trade unions should use it for the fightback of all time; one that’s urgently needed.
In 1979 there were 13.2 million members of trade unions. That number fell to 9.8 million in 1990, and came down to 6.4 million in 2014. Structural changes in the economy were partly responsible for this decline, and now only 14.2 per cent of private sector workers are in a trade union. The public sector had 3.8 million in membership in 2013, 67,000 lower than in 2012.
The union response will have to be better than the initial reaction from the TUC, which describes the Bill as an unnecessary attack on rights, noting it will make getting pay rises harder, claiming the
Tories are out to silence protests against cuts in social care, and pointing to the waste of police time dealing with seven people on a picket line.
All true, but it is hardly the kind of language of defiance now needed. This Bill is a political act, and will have to be met with political action and a political campaign taken to the membership, who in turn should take it to the public. There is a moral base to such a campaign.
If a government claims and exercises the right to negate free bargaining by imposing a wage freeze, or a limit, on public sector pay, then it is guilty of blackmail, because it knows the moral constraints on key public sector workers in respect of withdrawing labour.
Firefighters and nurses, to take but two examples, are confronted with a moral dilemma when legitimate demands for higher pay are rejected. To seek to impose further constraints on the trade unions who represent these and other workers adds to the odium of the blackmail.
Particularly nasty is the right given to employers to use agency workers when employees go on strike. That is a Blacklegs charter.
The usual words of condemnation in resolutions to the TUC Congress will not be enough. There has to be an intensification of political education among members by individual unions, so that the political fund is saved and the full membership is armed with all the arguments when they in turn engage in a political education campaign with the public, for that must happen.
The Tories are taking neo-liberalism to its logical conclusion – total destruction of working-class organisation. The battle to defeat it must now be joined and it is one the workers must win.