“We need to change the balance of forces in this country” – Kevin Courtney on repealing the anti-union laws

The first conference of the merged National Education Union passed policy on repealing all anti-union laws. Free Our Unions supporters held a fringe meeting (for details of the motion and meeting, see here) at which joint NEU General Secretary Kevin Courtney spoke. This is a slightly abridged version of his speech.

Thanks to Patrick [Murphy, NEU executive member for West Yorkshire] for this invitation, this discussion really matters. I guess I should do the legal bit as well – I’m not speaking in a personal capacity, I’m here as joint General Secretary of the union…

I want to put forward three cases for reform of the anti-union laws. A moral case, an economic case and a rights-based case. But I want to say before that, there are trade unionists who exaggerate the effect of the current laws as well. We need to change the laws, but you can be overfaced by the laws currently; you can pretend that the law is worse than it is.

So for example, on the vexed question of crossing picket lines, there’s quite often a case put that if your union hasn’t balloted for action and another union puts up a picket line, then your union has to say it’s illegal for you to refuse to cross that, you’ll be breaking the law if you don’t, it’s illegal secondary action. Quite often there’s a tussle, there used to be a tussle in many union headquarters about how we describe that – and it’s absolutely not the case.

If the NUT [main predecessor of the NEU] at a school hasn’t called a strike ballot and the GMB has called a strike ballot, and the GMB puts up a picket line, not only are they legally entitled to do that, but if a member [of ours] doesn’t cross it that’s legal as well. It’s a proper trade union action and they’re entitled to do it. So the limits are exaggerated. And then the question of how far you go down that line, the question of how far you can go before you get into trouble with it, if you’re obeying the law. The union couldn’t write to members saying we urge you not to cross a GMB picket line – that would take you outside the law. But a member, individually, not crossing, that’s not against the law.

I’m pretty pleased to say that at Kirstie [Paton, another speaker at the meeting]’s school, John Roan school, many, many NEU members have refused to cross GMB picket lines [cheering]. And we’re seeking all sorts of ways to ensure those members are not financially challenged by that… People sometimes say you can’t have more than six people on a picket line… it’s very easy to have six people on a picket line and thirty people just a couple of yards away.

But still we’ve got to say repeal the anti-union laws. Let’s make the case. I thought Patrick made a really good case in conference today. There is a huge moral case for repeal of the anti-union laws. For the strong to be able to go on strike in support of the weak is an important thing. When the miners struck for the nurses, for our health service, for instance in 1982, that was a very good thing to do.

I’ll tell you a secret. When I was Camden NUT branch secretary, there was a Unison dispute at the UCH hospital. The Tories were closing down a ward in the hospital, and we had seven primary schools that came out on strike. It was unofficial strike action. But they were out on strike, and we marched with the parents from the school down to the hospital in solidarity with the Unison strikers. You have to pick your cases on these thing. But sometimes you can do it quite safely as well. On this strike, the local Labour MP was supportive, everybody was against the ward being closed, we had parents walking with the teachers from the seven primary schools down to the hospital to rally, so it was possible to take unofficial strike action. It’s possible to do it. So there’s that moral case, about taking action in solidarity with the weak.

There’s a rights-based case… the idea that the Tories could select their candidate for London mayor, Zac, whatever his name is, Goldsmith, and they could do that by electronic methods, and we’re not allowed to elect our general secretary by electronic methods, we’re not allowed to have a ballot of our members by electronic methods. We are an organisation which makes decisions, which should be allowed to make decisions about itself. We should be allowed to decide how we consult with members, what the rules are around that. We might put all sorts of restrictions on on those, but they should be our restrictions to put on. The idea that they can stand outside and say you aren’t allowed to use these modern electronic methods is really quite weird…

And the thresholds they impose on us – the thresholds on all the unions in the 2016 [Trade Union] Act are disgraceful, the 50pc threshold is disgraceful. But they say education is – is it an emergency service? An essential service, yes. They put us in the category of an essential service and they say we have to have a 40pc threshold as well. Now, education is an essential service in some sense, like everything, the health service is essential, transport is essential, but that doesn’t mean they put any money into the service, they cut back on the funding. They treat us in one category at one time and another category at another time.

That combination means that to call even a one day strike – which means, let’s remember, that doesn’t make anyone take the action. Members can still not take the action – all it gives us permission to do is call a strike. And to get permission we need to get a 50pc turnout and on that at least 80pc of members voting yes, otherwise we’ve failed on the threshold.

On that threshold, this country would not have voted for Brexit. Whatever your position on Brexit, and I’m not seeking to introduce that into the discussion [laughter] but a vote that is to tear up a forty year old treaty that this country has been in, which obviously applies to every single person in the country, everyone is obviously in or out of the European Union, it’s got a massive effect, a vote of that scale would not permit me and [joint NEU General Secretary] Mary Bousted to call a one day strike that none of our members actually have to take. And this is quite astonishing. The level of threshold they apply to our strike action is quite astonishing, and there’s a really strong rights-based argument that is about fair treatment between different organisations.

And I think there’s an economic case as well, and this is really what the fundamental case is. You’ve seen these graphs, haven’t you, the graphs of union density versus the share of the economy that goes in wages. The graphs follow one another, or reverse one another, exactly. As union density goes up, the share of GDP that goes in wages goes up; as union density falls, the share of GDP that goes in wages falls. Do it the other way round. If union density goes up, profit goes down. If union density goes down, profit goes up. And that’s the fundamental reason that these laws are there. They are there to increase the share of the economy that goes to the profit of the owners of industry. That that’s our fundamental reason why we are against these laws. We need to change the balance of forces in this country. Our country has become increasingly more and more unequal since these laws have come into being.

And it’s not just our country. This is neoliberalism – these anti-union laws are the neoliberal attack that’s happened to working people worldwide. Across the world you see those changes happening. We need to make that economic case to working people, and teachers are working people. We need to make the economic case that we need those rights so that the share of the economy that goes into wages goes up.

I also want to say that there is more than just repealing the anti-union laws, although that is essential. It’s absolutely essential, but it’s not quite enough. Even when you’ve got strong unions, unless the strong unions are completely uniform, then a strong union in one workplace in an atomised situation can win a good deal. In a meatpacking factory, they can win a good deal and drive up pay, and then they’re undermined by weaker deals in the rest of the meatpacking industry. The other meatpackers undercut the meatpacker who has got a good deal. So we need legislation, as well as trade union rights… We should advance through union struggle, but we should seek legislation to shore up afterwards.

We should look at the fantastic inspiration we should take from the Chicago teachers and the Los Angeles teachers, and the huge movements they’ve stepped forward. And we have to look at the differences as well. Because in Chicago and in Los Angeles, what the union does there, and they happen to have huge densities, it’s a single union situation in both places, they’ve unified the AFT and the NEA, and they’re all in one union with huge density. They negotiate a single city-wide contract that applies in every single school. Any breach of that contract you can refer to the law outside, so that contract has great writ. That’s really not like the situation we’re in in the schools here! Where there is no single contract.

The remnants of the contract we have got aren’t even something we negotiate over. We just give evidence, and if you’re just giving evidence to the STRB [School Teachers’ Review Body, which sets teachers’ pay], which is where we’re at, you don’t control the pace of negotiations. If you’re negotiating, you can delay negotiations, to get close to the time when you want to take action, you can speed the negotiation up. We’ve got no control over the situation that we’re in like that, and you know that even when it comes out it doesn’t have the writ it needs.

So we need Labour to repeal the anti-union laws and then do things around introducing sectoral bargaining, shoring up on the minimum wage, all those things need to be put in place. We need to change the balance of forces so that the proportion of wages goes in the right direction.

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