commission an inquiry into industrial disputes, led by a QC with a track record of acting against unions in landmark cases, is a declaration of war on trade unionism on a par with the worst excesses of Thatcherism.
It should not be viewed in isolation. The primary purpose of the Lobbying Bill currently passing through Parliament is to silence the independent political voice of unions. It is a political campaigning version of the early 19th Century Combination Laws. This was confirmed by the Prime Minister himself ‘We all know what is going on—they do not want the trade unions brought within the law; they want the trade unions to go on spending millions after millions trying to alter an election campaign, rather than having them properly controlled by the law. That is what the lobbying Bill is about’ (Hansard, 4 September 2013).
Not content with UK laws on trade unions being, in the shameful words of Tony Blair, ‘the most restrictive in the western world’, the Government intends to prevent unions escalating industrial disputes beyond a specific workplace. Secondary action in solidarity with workers in dispute (or under threat as at Grangemouth) is already illegal in the UK. Now the target is to outlaw leverage campaigns.
Leverage is more commonly known in Britain as the escalation of a dispute by lobbying and protest to bring pressure to bear on an employer. It may involve boycotting products or lobbying companies in an employer supply chain. On a global scale such methods are being used to great effect to force Bangladesh garment manufacturers to raise labour standards. Similarly unions worldwide are utilising the leverage of pension fund investments in private corporations to secure ethical employment practices or union recognition.
The strategic leverage strategies deployed by Unite in recent years, including the harmless gesture politics of using inflatable rats and silent protests at the homes of company executives, were finessed in the US where workplace union rights are severely curtailed. In response, a cottage industry of specialist lawyers has developed to frustrate union efforts. But even in that extremely hostile anti union political environment there is no questioning of the legitimacy of the right of trade unions to protest.
The TUC response so far has been inadequate. To suggest as Frances O’Grady did in her initial comments that the inquiry ‘is simply part of the Conservative Party's general election campaign’ is to seriously misjudge the nature of the threat which it presents. Over the past 35 years our trade unions have failed to resist the imposition and retention of anti trade union laws (by Conservative and Labour Governments) which have seriously weakened union power and led to the massive widening of inequality in the UK.
If the Con Dems succeed in enacting the Lobbying Bill and driving through restrictions in campaigning around industrial disputes following the Carr inquiry, unions will be operating under conditions akin to martial law. It's time to stand up for trade unionism like never before. We must not acquiesce in our own demise.
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