Gregor Gall on Labour’s manifesto, trade union law and workers’ self-activity

Gregor Gall is a visiting professor of industrial relations at the University of Leeds and an affiliate research associate at the University of Glasgow. He supports the Free Our Unions campaign.

Gregor spoke to The Clarion about the commitments on workers’ and trade union rights in the Labour Party manifesto, and the wider issues they raise.


What’s your assessment of the manifesto in terms of trade union rights?

The 2017 manifesto was a big advance on 2015, which essentially mentioned only zero hours contracts, raising the minimum wage and the right to have a written contract. In turn 2019 is a big step forward from 2017, across a range of issues. The 2019 manifesto is both broader and deeper – it covers new issues and it goes into more detail. There’s a lot more on workers’ rights in general. They’ve restated things like the £10 an hour minimum wage, but you’ve also got new pledges on worker directors, on the employee ownership fund, on compassionate leave for bereavement and other issues. And there’s a lot more detail, for instance on collective bargaining, which in 2017 was just a few words but is now explained quite a bit more.

However I wouldn’t push that point too far and that’s where my criticism lies. A lot is left unexplained and undeveloped, or under-developed.

In particular there are questions about how thing will be enforced. On sectoral collective bargaining, how would they force employers to come to the bargaining table? Fines, putting managing directors in contempt of court, what? But it’s not just about legal mean or state means of enforcement – there’s the whole question of unions’ role. If you introduce sectoral bargaining in the hospitality sector, sure, Unite, GMB and the Bakers organise there but density is probably five percent, so is there the strength to make bargaining meaningful? Of course things Labour is promising like access to workplaces and simplified recognition procedures will help to build union strength, but there will still be a problem. In terms of the relative lack of detail, sure, it’s a manifesto, not a piece of legislation or a white paper, but when you are putting forward quite radical and sweeping changes you have to make them credible and concrete. The means need to be such as to deliver the ends. You need a view of whose interests you are challenging, what the resistance will be, how you overcome it…

That brings us to the big issue I haven’t mentioned so far, the right to strike. There, too, there is progress. They’ve gone beyond just repealing the 2016 Trade Union Act. We have a recommitment to allowing electronic and workplace ballots, but then also significant developments – in particular the wording about removing “unnecessary restrictions on industrial action” and repealing legislation “including” the 2016 Act, plus about “new rights and freedoms” for unions.

So far, so good, but once again it’s incumbent on whoever wrote that to explain what this will look like. What restrictions will they remove, what laws will they repeal, what rights and freedoms will they introduce? You can’t talk about new rights and freedoms without spelling out what you mean, both in terms of the positive rights you want and the fact that under the anti-union laws even the negative immunities unions used to have have been radically narrowed.

When people in the labour movement talk about “a right to strike”, what does that cover? You can have a right to strike which doesn’t allow strikes for political reasons, or a situation like Germany where there is a positive legal right to strike but when negotiating a new contract, not within an existing contract.

On union access to workplaces, great, but what form does it take? One week in every year, or all the time? Do you need some form of consent from or consultation with the employer? These things need to be tied down. The wording in the manifesto is in general very encouraging but it allows for very wide variations within possible legislation and codes of practice when they are written. The worry is that our unions will not push for the most expansive and radical interpretation and development, perhaps even the opposite.

The manifesto has addressed many issues but in addressing those issue it has raised further questions. It’s a danger but also an opportunity; there is a lot still to fight for.

The last thing I’d want to say is that even if these issue are addressed in a good, thoroughgoing way, what changes would you expect to see in terms of workers’ behaviour? Changing the law won’t suddenly make everything ok, because workers’ class consciousness and confidence are low. Industrial action is at a historic low: at the moment there are maybe a hundred strikes a year; in the early 1980s it was over a hundred a month. Legal changes are important and necessary but not sufficient to get out of the hole we are in. Tough as it is, we need to have that discussion a lot more.

What is true is that changing the law can lead to more victories and that can have a demonstration effect. Victories are key in changing people’s consciousness and psychology.

In Jacobin recently, you suggest the distinction between secondary action and secondary picketing is important. Can you explain?

The key thing I was trying to get across in the article was the importance of secondary action, but also what are the means or mechanisms that workers can do that by? Say a strike happens here in Glasgow, how would workers in Edinburgh come out in support? Is it that someone tweeted about it and it just gets picked up? That might happen, but it’s more likely if workers come through from Glasgow and make an appeal to the workers in Edinburgh. You want to be able to go to other workplaces and make the argument for solidarity – even if you don’t block people going in, you can appeal to them, but that can easily fall under the ban on secondary picketing.

John McDonnell was asked about it on Radio 4 and he seemed to defend the right to secondary action but not to secondary picketing, in which case secondary action will not be nearly as effective as it could be.

What’s the difference between secondary pickets and flying pickets?

Flying pickets are one form of secondary picketing, when a strong and well-organised group of workers, like building workers or miners in the ’70s, send out pickets to multiple targets, with a wide reach. Secondary picketing might be more limited than that. With the ban on secondary picketing, flying pickets are banned automatically.

The Labour leadership seems pretty reticent about the right to strike, until now making no real commitment beyond repealing the 2016 Act and focusing sometimes almost exclusively on collective bargaining. Why do you think that is?

What’s probably at the base of it is that, whatever the ups and downs and the immediate polling situation, the leadership see their left project as closer to realisation than at any stage of their lives – and for Corbyn and McDonnell it’s their last act given their age – so there’s a reluctance to give their opponents ammunition or score any own goals. I don’t know but I’d guess there’s a thought about making some headway and then pushing further later on. For some further to the right a given demand may be the end of it, whereas the left leaders think it’s a good first step.

I also note that McDonnell, who is probably to the left of Corbyn, has pitched a lot of what he’s proposing, infrastructure investment and so on, as good for business. Even with workers’ rights, it’s often posed as if workers have more rights they’ll be more productive and that will be good for employers too. It’s a social democratic message. Whatever they believe personally, they’re not willing to make bolder arguments about the need for workers engaging in class conflict and workers’ power.

Gate Gourmet airline catering workers fighting for their jobs, 2005. Heathrow baggage handlers walked out illegally in solidarity, creating a brief political crisis around the anti-union laws

It’s classic social democracy, doing things for workers rather than workers doing things for themselves. The basic conception is improving workers’ situation from Parliament and government or, at one remove, strengthening unions to improve workers’ situation from the top down. Workers’ self-activity is not necessarily central.

There’s an even wider point there. Labour uses the word socialism quite a lot thee days. Laura Pidcock, who leads on these issues, spoke at the FBU’s national school in late November and used the word quite freely. In the round that’s a good thing, but it begs a lot of questions. Even a lot of the commitments about workers’ representation are about integrating workers into a set up that will allow a fairer form of capitalism. It’s quite a standard model in many European countries. If it’s socialism it’s very much socialism from above, but it’s actually social democracy.

Perhaps you’ve partly answered this then: the bulk of the practical debate in the labour movement is about modifying the Thatcherite anti-strike laws – loosening up balloting in various ways, maybe expanding the definition of a trade dispute, reducing notice periods and so on. Why this retreat from simply saying all these laws should be repealed and that workers and unions themselves should be able to decide when and how to take action, at least as freely as in 1979?

Yes, there’s that nervousness in Labour about tripping up and not realising the project. Also there is the problem that many unions have retreated from this clear demand. You used to have lots of unions which not only argued for repeal of all the anti-union laws but actually did something about it. Some of those unions no longer really exist, for instance the NUM and UCATT. Today you have the FBU making a noise about this, but it only has 33,000 members. The bigger unions in the Labour Party are not particularly on the left and their stances on this feed into the leadership’s reticence.

We absolutely need to push the debate much further. Take the issue of how a trade dispute is defined. Let’s say we radically change the procedure and allow secondary action too, so many more different forms of action are possible, but it will still be on very limited issues. We need to abolish the whole concept of a trade dispute which rules out workers taking any kind of political strike action. If we don’t raise these bigger issues and we’re not bold we’re going to miss an opportunity.

How would you make the argument for the right to take political strike action?

One example I’d cite is that public sector in particular are affected by government policy which affects them as workers. There’s many cases of strikes against outsourcing or privatisation, or say academisation, which are ruled out of order because the courts deemed them political action. We need to insist that this clear distinction between terms and conditions and political issues is unviable.

Then more generally there’s the question of companies that are in the public eye and workers beyond their workforce taking action to bring them to account.

It comes back to the question of what’s political. If we say workers and citizens should be able to take action to advance their interests and those of fellow workers and citizens, in an immediate but also a broader sense, then that can reframe the debate.

Moreover there’s no reason why this shouldn’t apply for international solidarity. Think about the Dublin lockout in 1913, it was very important that workers in Glasgow and Liverpool were able to go out to support them. There’s the famous example of the workers featured in Nae Pasaran who refused to work on the Hawker Hunter aircraft for Pinochet’s Chile, or more recently ASLEF members in Scotland refusing to move a weapons system for the war in Iraq. To be fair when Nae Pasaran came out John McDonnell made the point that this is entirely legitimate, but the argument seems to have got lost.

If you look at the gigantic issue of climate change, you could have a political general strike demanding our government take action on the climate emergency. You could also have workers in an industry with a major carbon footprint saying we want our industry run in a different way and taking industrial action to get a plan implemented.

How do you see a revived and expanded system of collective bargaining and the right to strike interacting?

We need to remember the phrase “What we have is not collective bargaining but collective begging”, which originated in 1950s America. Collective bargaining is fundamental, but unless you have some leverage over your opponents at the bargaining table, it doesn’t get you very far. The right to take action which gives you power in the workplace as well as in the bargaining process is essential.

In the US many unions have complained that although they have a statutory right to bargain, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on. Some unions never even get to their first contract, their first agreement, or in other cases it takes many years, because they lack the power to force the employer to heel.

It goes back to the right to strike – you need strong rights around that, but you also need unions willing to use them and go on strike or even that right won’t get you far.

You wouldn’t want to reproduce the situation in Germany, or other countries where you can strike during the term of an agreement but only over issues covered by the agreement. You want a broad framework of collective bargaining which does not limit the right to take industrial action. I’m struggling to think of a good example that exists anywhere at the moment!

We also need to keep in view the possible divergence of interests between union members as workers and unions as organisations. I’m not saying that all unions do, always, is try to control and do down their members, but rather stressing a distinction about centrally-enforced union control as against local initiative by workers organised in the union. Say a new issue arises that’s not covered by an existing agreement, and let’s say the national union doesn’t know about it or is not switched on to the issue, it should be up to workers on the ground to respond to it in a way they think is fitting. Changes in the law are important, but so is the way unions function. Now virtually every UK union has a national committee that has to approve requests to even ballot for industrial action.

No one of any stature is really advocating the right to take unofficial action. We need to. Look at victimisations; if you have to ballot, even if it’s electronic and there’s a shorter notice period, it will still mean two or three weeks can go by, or more, and the anger and momentum can dissipate.

Can you say something about the debate around positive rights versus repealing anti-union laws?

From the weak position we’re in you can very much see the appeal of positive legal rights. You then ask what form that takes, what are the rights, how expansive, and so on? That’s one left-wing response. But the other is to go back to the idea that was prevalent in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when unions had a scepticism or fear about the law intervening in industrial relations, because they were strong and didn’t need the law and thought it would be used to undermine them.

Turn the clock forward and unions are weak and feel they need state intervention. We do need to use the law to create a better balance between capital and labour, but the goal also has to be to rebuild our strength and get the whip hand. We need to keep that in view, particularly if we are thinking not just about unions but about the bigger project of socialism!

I’m in favour of reasserting collective bargaining for much the same reasons I’m in favour of reasserting social democratic politics, but the problem with both is that you can create constraints and inhibitions on moving further forward. It may seem far off but we need to be aware of this issue and pose the changes we want in a way that bears this in mind.

You’ve raised the idea of a system of “union default”, where everyone who gets a job automatically becomes a member of a union, though they can then opt to resign. This has not been widely discussed in the British labour movement. Explain that?

This idea has also been called auto-enrolment, like you can have auto-enrolment for pensions. Most of the work I’m doing on this is with colleagues in New Zealand and there more progress has been made. One of the people engaged there is a former minister in a Labour government in New Zealand and she’s now a lawyer and academic. As you know the New Zealand Labour Party is in government and has taken a relatively left-wing stance, so it’s a live debate. We’ve got some funding to pursue the idea. The concept has been noticed and attacked by right-wing political parties and in the media, so that may be a sign it’s getting somewhere!

In Britain, for sure, not so much. I’ve spoken to the Institute of Employment Rights and I think the leading people’s feeling is it’s not a bad idea but not one they’re enthusiastic about. From my perspective I recognise problems with it, for instance in terms of institutionalisation, but I think it would be a big step forward. However, without organisations or significant figures taking it up it doesn’t get raised in the debates and so there’s a bit of a circular problem it’s hard to break out of it.

I’m optimistic it may get picked up, because of the wider political context. In various parts of the world we’re seeing more political forces engaging with the idea that unions have an important role to play in addressing inequality and insecurity, significantly beyond the socialist left. Not just a social democrat like Bernie Sanders, for instance, but also Elizabeth Warren. You even get echoes of this way to the right, including sometimes from the IMF. I’m not saying that’s a brilliant thing, and even when there’s a definite commitment it’s obviously for very different reasons than socialists have, but it shows how the political pendulum can start to swing and we should throw ourselves into the debate.

Again, I’d stress that union default is a useful idea for where we are now, in a really very weak position. In a better context it might not be a useful demand.

What do you think are the most significant workers’ struggles taking place in the UK at the moment?

We can’t lose sight of the problem that we have a drought of strikes. However, that only gets you so far. It is inevitable and even fitting that we somewhat over-emphasise the importance of the strikes that are happening and try to draw positive lessons as well as encouragement from them. If you look at the things going on in the service sector, Deliveroo, Uber, McDonald’s, I guess the question is how do you scale up from those relatively small examples?

Also, how do you create a sustainable worker-activist base out of them? There’s an issue of talented people recruited in struggles becoming full-timers and coming out of the workplace, and that helping in some ways but hurting in others.

Growing these kind of struggles is important, but it has to go alongside political action to change the whole environment. You need a multi-pronged approach – industrial action, support from outside, but also political action to win legal compulsion on companies like McDonald’s. The current environment is difficult and has to be altered.

As an aside I’d note that Deliveroo couriers, for instance, are not affected by the anti-union laws in the same way, because they’re not classified as workers but self-employed contractors, and so not covered by the same framework. That’s obviously a problem in terms of job security and other issues, but it means the forms of action they take are different and in some ways they’re less restricted.

I would also look at the struggle of my own union, UCU, which is now being waged under a new general secretary from the left. Developments in UCU clearly show plenty of positives, not least in terms of workers standing up for themselves and developing creative forms of activity, but I’d be quite sober about the change it represents too.

Then there’s the importance of outsourced workers. It’s interesting that in a mainstream union like PCS some of the most dynamic struggles are outsourced members and not civil servants themselves. The BEIS strikes were significant, particularly in the number of days and eventually going all out. I think in London there are things stirring, noticeably with the IWGB and UVW, and that may well be felt in other places as we go along.

What is the new grassroots unions have? They have flatter structures, a more activist bent, a willingness to engage in more spontaneous types of action and also direct action to pressure their targets. There’s a lot to offer there, but even after recent growth these small unions probably only have seven or eight thousand members between them. If you wind the clock forward ten years or twenty, and they’ve got larger, would they start to replicate the problems we have in the established unions? The question of scale and of changing the big unions always come back into play.

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