Activists in the Fire Brigades Union have been getting involved in the ‘Free Our Unions’ campaign, launched by The Clarion to push Labour to commit to repealing all the anti-union laws. For reports on our recent activity with the FBU, see here and here.
For more information on Free Our Unions – including how to raise support in your union or Labour Party, how to purchase copies of our pamphlet and how to invite speakers to a meeting – please click here.
I think the question of the state of our trade union movement is a key strategic discussion that we need to have. All too often we gloss over the downsides.
When I was at school in 1979, when Thatcher came to power, there were over 13 million workers in trade unions. That was more than half the workforce. All my mates’ mums and dads were in trade unions. Today, there are little over six million workers in trade unions, and the workforce has grown massively – it’s around 24% of the workforce in unions. This is a huge decline in absolute numbers and a huge decline in the proportion of the workforce who are members of trade unions.
That impacts upon other things, such as the coverage of collective bargaining. And then if you think about fact that we’ve lived through eight years of pay restraint in the public sector, it is staggering that they have been able to get away with it and that our movement has been unable to say “we’re not having it, we are breaking these pay caps”.
When you look at wider issues of decline in trade unionism, you can see that that decline in trade union influence and power all over the western world has had an impact on issues such as inequality, and the weakening of the labour movement has been part and parcel of a shift in the balance and power in society in favour of the bosses, the ruling class.
Alongside that, when you look at the other aspects of how trade unionism has changed, it strikes me that we have seen a decline in the level of workplace organisation – so, people may be in unions, but that doesn’t mean they’re organised within the workplace, or have representatives or shop stewards in the workplace. Again, that influences the ability of workers to organise and defend themselves. These are big issues, and I don’t think the left spends enough time discussing them.
I remember Jeremy Corbyn coming to the TUC after winning the leadership election, and – bearing in mind a lot of unions had not rushed to support him! – the mood when he entered that hall was absolutely remarkable. The first thing he did was to pay tribute to PCS strikers who were in the balcony. He then said: “I am proud to be a lifelong trade unionist”. This just completely cut away years of what we’d had from Labour leaders – some TUC delegates were brought to tears, it was remarkable!
So there’s something about the opportunity around Corbyn that gives us a chance to bring some of these things together, because we clearly desperately need a Corbyn-led Labour government to challenge some of the things we’ve spoken about tonight – precarious work, flexible labour markets and so on. And what we haven’t got, I think, as a key part of our strategy, is how do we as a movement begin to address them.
The Trade Union Act is the most recent attack, which put in place further hurdles to unions on all aspects of what we do – politically, industrially and legally – to further constrain how we are able to organise. We [firefighters] have got the double threshold as a so-called “important public service” – it’s funny how they call us an important public service when we go out on strike, they don’t call us that when they’re trying to slash our pensions or our pay. This double threshold means that if we get a 50% turnout we’d need an 80% yes vote. This doesn’t apply to any other aspect of public life – you can be elected as a councillor, making key decisions about peoples’ lives, on next to no votes at all in some cases.
In the West Midlands, in a dispute which fortunately we were able to resolve without taking strike action, we won a 90% vote on an 84% turnout. So it is possible despite those hurdles to organise and fightback – but, nevertheless, those hurdles are in place. It is not simply, however, the 2016 Trade Union Act that is the problem. We have more than three decades of anti-union legislation. And one of the biggest problems the trade unions had – certainly my own trade union had – when Labour was in power was the complete failure, apart for some minor tinkering, to do anything about the anti-trade union legislation, which seriously limits our ability to fight back. It has led to key strategic defeats for our side. Blair of course boasted about having the most restrictive trade union rights in western Europe. The Corbyn election has given us the opportunity to put that back on the agenda.
However, I think it is worth noting, if you read the National Policy Forum document in relation to this – I think there is only one paragraph referring to the anti-union laws – it says that yes, we will move to repeal the Trade Union Act and give rights to access to workplaces and so on, and then to “develop this thinking”. Well, we could be a bit clearer than that! We should say: our starting point are the policies that have already passed at Labour conference which is that all those laws should be repealed.
However, this is not simply concentrating on the law. It is about rebuilding a fighting trade union movement. We have been inspired by the McDonald’s strikers, the Picturehouse strikers, those organised by independent, small, non-TUC unions. Places where workers have organised where people dismissed them and said “oh, you’ll never make a breakthrough”. These strikes deserve our acknowledgement and the full support of our movement.
It may be that some people think we’ll get attacked in the press, others think it’s going too far. But at least we need to start having the debate – what programme do we want from a Labour government in relation to employment and trade union rights? Our starting point is all the anti-trade union legislation needs to go. We’ve run into trouble over mass picketing in the past and have been taken to court. Some of us will recall the NUM saying that at one point, in order to support nurses’ pay claims, they would consider calling miners out in solidarity. And yet we’ve become so used to things that that sort of thinking isn’t even in people’s heads any more. But we should be thinking about solidarity and how we develop it, and if we go on strike how we take strike action to win – and that may mean organising pickets, flying pickets, whatever we need to do. The state should keep completely out of it.
I just want to finish on this – if you think about the worrying decline, look to our past. Not long before the turn of the 20th century, trade unions were mostly limited to well-paid workers with secure employment. At the time, people said dock workers would never join unions. And then of course we had the match girls’ strike in 1888, some of the most oppressed young women workers who decided to take action – and did so successfully. And that then set a spark elsewhere in east London among dock workers that led to the New Unionism and mass trade unionism among people previously dismissed as not being able to be unionised. So it is possible to turn things around.
Yes, the economy has moved on in many different ways and we need to take account of that. But we need to be optimistic. The basic relationship hasn’t changed – people go to work, people are exploited by their employers, and our job is to organise workers to defend themselves at work. That’s why we need fighting trade unions, and that’s why we need the repeal of all anti-trade union laws.
• For more from Matt Wrack for The Clarion, please click here.
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