Conrad Landin talks to ex-Ford union convener and communist industrial organiser Kevin Halpin about the Industrial Relations Act
When Sajid Javid announced the terms of punitive new union laws, the labour movement was left pondering serious questions.
The past five years have seen vibrant campaigns against NHS privatisation, the gagging laws, the privatisation of Royal Mail — but only in a few exceptional cases have campaigners defeated Tory laws politically.
Some still advocate for the Kill the Bill campaign to focus on undermining the new, albeit small, Tory majority in the House of Commons, while others see parliamentary lobbying as a non-starter.
But for Kevin Halpin, the answer seems obvious. The life-long union militant became the founding chair of the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions which was set up to resist anti-union legislation in the mid 1960s. A union convener at Ford, he had been sacked several years before — exactly the sort of victimisation he has spent his life fighting against.
He became crucial in resistance to successive attempts to curtail the rights of workers. And his guiding principle was always the same. “We didn’t oppose going to Parliament, but we opposed Parliament being the be-all and end-all.”
This time round, Halpin is hopeful that the official structures of the trade unions can play a stronger part in resisting the changes.
He is impressed by the motions submitted by unions to TUC Congress. “They’re suggesting the TUC take some action, starting by demonstrations.
“But if someone gets rapped for it, put inside, the TUC will have to call major action. They will this time I think because we’ve got a better TUC than we used to.”
Getting union leaderships on side has always been worth the effort,
Halpin tells me. The liaison committee “aimed to get [union] executives along with us” on each occasion it resisted anti-union legislation.
“That was the argument we had. There were Trots who said we shouldn’t have the executives of unions with us but we said: ‘well we should have everybody with us, and we succeeded in getting the TUC to call a general strike’ in 1972.”
The liaison committee’s first struggles were against the restrictions on union power recommended in the 1968 Donovan report and Barbara Castle’s In Place of Strife white paper — which the then Labour government was forced to withdraw.
But the real struggle came with the 1971 Industrial Relations Act, which was brought in under Edward Heath’s Tory government and went further than either.
The Act concentrated power in the leaderships of unions, and made no-strike agreements easier a to implement.
Then, the struggle was different: “A lot of the union executives and officials welcomed the anti-union laws, because it gave them control.
“Whereas before the rank and file were getting in control.”
It also established the National Industrial Relations Court — which would grant injunctions against strikes. In the event of a breach, the law allowed the sequestration of union funds.
The confrontation that killed the Bill, Halpin says, was the dockers’ strike of 1972 — immortalised by the cases of the Pentonville 5.
“The TUC eventually, very reluctantly, when we’d stopped the whole bloody country, agreed to call a general strike,” he recalls. “The dockers were put in jail on the Friday. By Saturday we had Fleet Street out, and we continued growing the strikes, we had Waterloo out. We had it out on a rank and file basis.
“So that was our position, call strikes, rank and file, and get the executives and the TUC to back them.”
The now-retired Halpin is hopeful that similar industrial defiance can be used to undermine the current proposals to the point that they are not effective.
While the Bill’s proposal to implement strike thresholds has gained most attention, trade unionists are more concerned by limitations on picketing — including the necessity to inform bosses and authorities of individual pickets and even plans to restrict social media activity.
“We’ll have to see what the Tories do, because they can enact things, but carrying them out is a different matter,” Halpin says. “Tactically I don’t think they will work, people won’t carry them out, and that’s how it will have to be — defiance of the laws.
“But defiance of the laws has to be carried out right the way through.
“For instance, you don’t know who’s going to be in charge of the picket until they’re out there. And you can’t name the pickets, because if you name the pickets they’ll be on the front line for getting sacked, won’t they?
“If there’s not such a big impetus from the rank and file movement, it has to be the official movement,” he concludes. “But we’ll have to push it.
“The broader the movement, the better it will be.”