Ian Lavery is right to say it’s no use only to repeal old laws but, argues RICHARD RUDKIN, Labour must protect staff rights to withdraw work
SUCCESSIVE Tory governments since 1980 have introduced trade union laws that have limited the effectiveness of the unions, culminating in the Trade Union Act 2016, which imposes further rules that make British workers’ rights the most restrictive in the Western world.
Meanwhile, Labour has launched Workplace 2020, which asks both employers and employees what the workplace should look like.
Writing in the Morning Star about Workplace 2020, Wansbeck the Labour MP and shadow Cabinet Office minister Ian Lavery said: “It’s no good looking back to simply repeal old laws and leave us with something that was fit for past workplaces.”
But is that really the case? Isn’t repealing these old laws exactly what is needed?
First, I hold my hands up: I am a dinosaur. Along with many comrades all over Britain, I stood on picket lines in the 1970s. We were fighting for better pay, hours or working conditions. Sometimes it was a dispute with our employer. On other occasions, it was to support our comrades in struggles against their employer. Striking was always the last option. No-one wanted to lose money, but we knew that by having solidarity with each other we had a chance of winning.
History taught us that the only two weapons that the working class has are the power to withdraw labour and solidarity with each other. Battles that had been fought and won were almost always based on these two factors. Union members and leaders had been jailed and even died in the process of exercising their right to withdraw their labour.
Knowing these two key elements, Margaret Thatcher began the process of breaking the chain that kept the working class united. The process continued under John Major until he was defeated by Tony Blair in 1997. However, despite gaining power with a huge majority, the following 13 years of Labour government saw not one anti-trade union law rescinded.
Having failed to redress the imbalance the Conservatives created, the workers were left at the mercy of David Cameron’s Tories in 2010, propped up by Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats.
In the fight to return to government under the leadership of Ed Miliband, trade union leaders and others called for a ban on zero-hours contracts.
Apart from Miliband’s weak and open-ended state meant that “if you work regular hours, you will have a right to a contract with contracted hours averaged over 12 weeks,” the party gave no other proposals to redress the balance of power to the trade unions.
Labour appeared to be afraid to oppose the Tories’ anti-trade union laws for fear of ridicule by the other political parties and the mainstream media.
After losing the 2015 election, trade unionists were once again left to the mercy of a Conservative government. Not surprisingly, the onslaught continues.
We have seen examples of employees being treated by high street firms similar to workers in distant history. Allegations include not paying living wages, taking the tips of service staff, timed toilet breaks, three strikes and you’re out rules, body searches — the list goes on.
Promises by the government to be tough on bad bosses have been broken.
However, Jeremy Corbyn gave us some hope when he wrote in the Observer last year: “It should be mandatory for all large employees with over 250 staff to bargain collectively with recognised trade unions.”
Corbyn is right, this would be the best way to ensure each employee is guaranteed fair pay, knowing that their union will be negotiating on their behalf. In addition, Corbyn stated his Labour government would bring an end to zero-hours contracts by proposing that all employees be given specified hours written into a contract of employment.
Although this is a step forward and gives more hope to trade unionists than any recent Labour leader has provided, safeguards would still be required to ensure that the rights of the employee to withdraw their labour without fear of being replaced by cheaper scab labour, sacked or prevented by a court from taking this action. If not, there is no balance and we must never forget that people have died to secure these rights.
To restore the balance, a future Labour government must scrap all existing anti-trade union laws at the first opportunity.
New, sensible laws can then be made based on fairness and equality, giving an even hand to employer and employee but ensuring that the ultimate bargaining right of the employee to withdraw their labour be the bedrock on which any new trade union laws are built.
So, to answer the initial statement made by Ian Lavery, he is right. It’s no good just repealing old laws but repeal them we must.
One final question we must all consider: when we tell our children and grandchildren that people in their sixties had better terms, conditions, pay and pensions; when we tell them that zero-hours contracts never existed and when they ask what did you do to stop all this, what will our answer be?