On Saturday I had the pleasure of addressing a meeting organised by the Manchester Trades Council about the need to repeal anti-trade union legislation.
Our movement continues to be held back and hamstrung by legislation passed by the Conservative Government during the 1980s. There were six Employment Acts passed while Thatcher was Prime Minister, and each altered the rules against the interests of working people. Some attacks were aimed at individual employment rights, some aimed at the ability of unions to function as organisations and some aimed at creating greater obstacles to effective industrial action.
We should be in no doubt that the changes made then were part of a concerted ideological attack. Thatcher even drew a parallel between how she approached fighting a war and how she approached organised labour – saying that the ‘enemy within’ is more dangerous. We should never forget how much Thatcher, and now her heirs in the present Government, fear us and how much they want to get rid of us.
The New Labour years brought some respite, but not the reversal of the anti-union laws that we needed. Blair could still boast of the how the UK labour market was amongst the most deregulated in the western world.
Since 2010, the attack has resumed again in earnest. We’ve seen the introduction of Employment Tribunal fees – causing a 79% fall in the number of cases being heard. We’ve seen the requirements on employers to collectively consult workers in a redundancy situation relaxed and the TUPE provisions weakened. We’ve seen the provisions of the Gagging Act come into effect last Friday, putting limits on the activities of unions and other civil society organisations in the run up to the general election in May.
The worst reforms may be yet to come. The Tory outriders sometimes suggest banning strikes amongst certain groups of workers and introducing thresholds in a strike ballot. They may launch further attacks on facility time for trade union duties and withdraw the DOCAS machinery for administering union subs.
What we have seen is a sustained attempt – now lasting decades – to make it harder for unions to function effectively. It is a responsibility of the unions affiliated to the Labour Party to highlight how the anti-union laws hamstring our activities and our ability to defend and improve the condition of working people.
We must keep in mind that fairer laws are not enough. We need a level playing field but we also need to up our game. We need to improve our strength in workplaces across the country through organising. In our region this is bearing fruit and despite the savage cuts in jobs, UNISON is experiencing net growth in membership. We need more members, better workplace organisation and an improved ability to speak for working people. This is how we can take the fight to employers – and how we can win.