Strong words are fine, but we trade unionists must be willing to oppose undemocractic laws, argues RICHARD RUDKIN
For trade unionists since the general election, our circumstance has been like the opening line from Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale Of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” First the best of times.
The political Establishment and mainstream media’s plans to discredit Jeremy Corbyn and his policies, and to portray him as a terrorist sympathiser not only failed but failed miserably.
They not only claimed that any party spending more on the sick, the poor and the old — while suggesting the wealthier could pay a little extra to make it happen — was living in “La La Land” but also portrayed such policies of compassion as “radical.”
Through the hard work of Corbyn, his closest allies, political activists who worked their socks off — and let’s not forget the important role played by the Morning Star — to get Corbyn’s message across, Labour had an excellent election result that left Theresa May clinging to power on the coattails of the DUP at a cost exceeding £1.5 billion.
Although we were denied a Corbyn victory, we can all take comfort from knowing that the Tory government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich is now very fragile indeed.
The election result made our socialist celebrations such as the Durham Miners’ Gala, the Tolpuddle festival and the Matchwomen’s Festival, which celebrates the brave women of the Bryant and May matchworks all the more enjoyable.
Rightly, at these celebrations we take time to remember the trailblazers of socialism, like George Loveless and his comrades who were jailed and transported to Australia, facing the brutality that the British penal system bestowed on offenders in those days.
Yet despite their fear of being caught and the threat of jail, together with further hardship for their families left behind, they continued to fight for what they believed was right.
The example they leave us seems to chime with what the US civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr wrote in his 1963 letter from Birmingham Jail: “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
In many ways, it is also the worst of times for trade unionists in Britain. We have record homelessness and foodbanks, with over 910,000 UK workers now employed on zero-hours contracts — which is estimated to grow as we face the challenges of Brexit — and despite Britain having some of the toughest anti-trade union laws, this never stopped the Tory government enhancing them with further restrictions on industrial action.
Changes include requiring a 50 per cent turnout with a further requirement for “important public services” balloting for industrial action, new statutory restrictions on how picket lines and protests are organised, together with a host of other obligations placed on trade unions.
Stopping short of a blanket ban on strikes, it is blatantly obvious the intention is to make it both as difficult and expensive as possible for a trade union to take industrial action.
While prison staff are cracking under the pressure of low pay and understaffing, and crying out for more resources, what did the government do? In a further show of utter contempt for working people, it went to the High Court to obtain a permanent ban on prison officers taking industrial action, bringing them closer to preventing prison staff striking at all.
Refreshingly, the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) general secretary Steve Gillian indicated that if it was the will of the membership to bring the POA into conflict with the employers, then that’s exactly what he would do.
While a Corbyn-led Labour government is the ideal solution to the problem, could the trade union movement have acted earlier and could anything be done now to help fight this injustice?
I believe the answers is yes in both cases. As those of us who were around in the ’60s are aware, times have changed. But what hasn’t changed is the power of solidarity.
In 2012, speaking at the TUC in response to the Tory-Lib Dem government’s “austerity plans” and the talk of a general strike, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said: “Let’s start the consultation today. Are you ready to strike?”
His speech had delegates clapping and cheering to the rafters. But what happened to the drive and enthusiasm away from the hall and in the meeting rooms? Words are fine and, yes, we can have demonstrations and petitions, but history shows that no capitalist government has ever given the working class anything without a fight.
Isn’t it a possibility that by failing to build on the momentum inspired by McCluskey’s speech and pick up the gauntlet thrown down by David Cameron, the trade union movement sent the wrong message to the government, suggesting it would take no action?
If that is the case, is it any surprise that given the opportunity in 2015, the Tories continued to tighten legislation?
When asked by the Morning Star earlier this year if the resistance to the Trade Union Act has been strong enough, McCluskey replied: “Nine out of 10 unions have in their rulebooks that they have to act within the law ... We will be pushed outside the law if that is what it takes to defend our members ... We will do what we have to do irrespective of whether it is lawful.” And rightly so.
Surely if all the trade unions did likewise, it would demonstrate a start of the resistance and that solidarity within the trade union movement not only exists but is stronger then ever.
Would it not show the government that, like trade unionists before us, if we too believe a law is wrong, we are prepared to ignore it and deal with the consequences?
Finally, yes, we must all be on standby for a snap election. However, we must also face the grim possibility that, thanks to the DUP, this government could last until 2022.
Knowing this and the damage inflicted on the trade union movement so far, might it not be a mistake to wait for a snap election and a Corbyn victory to right all the wrongs?
After all, isn’t being mobilised to call a general strike long overdue?