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Wednesday, 9 February 2011

What now for trade unions? - IER conference report

The always excellent Institute Of Employment Rights set itself a high bar with a conference entitled ‘What Now for Trade Unions?’ http://www.ier.org.uk/node/472  Like the search for alchemy, a future that is golden for trade unions is no easy prescription.
Steve Farley (Chair North West TUC) in opening the conference reflected on the serious damage the Tories will do to the Region and especially its young people.

With twenty nine thousand 18 -24 year olds claiming benefit in the region they are the generation who will be destroyed by this ideological attack on all working people he said.

Bob Monks from URTU argued that as a movement we have to connect with young people because without their support our movement's continual decline will only accelerate. The call for greater recruitment to trade unions especially of the young, by organising all workers is not new but is still totally relevant. A movement that has declined from nearly 13 million in 1979 to just over 6 million today cannot afford any complacency.

Keith Ewing, President of the Institute, and Professor of Law at Kings College gave a detailed, comprehensive but completely accessible review of the last few months in labour law developments. He clearly outlined how the Council of Europe Social Rights committee has investigated the UK’s compliance of Labour standards and found us in breach of 13 of 16 obligations.

He went on to detail how Vince Cable's new Employment charter is not only a employers charter but will further herald the introduction of ‘master and servant’ contracts in the UK. Going through the Bateman v ASDA case of last year he described how an EAT had agreed that a company can reserve the right to vary contractual terms and conditions without consent.

This is not an isolated case and other companies like BA are now reserving the right to make reasonable adjustments and/or changes to contracts and to any terms and conditions from time to time. These changes, legal in law, will be made either by general notice applicable to all employees or by way of a specific notice to individuals.

Whilst this heralds one of the most dangerous threats to workers rights Keith highlighted the provisions contained in the Information and Consultation Regulations 2004 that enable us to challenge such an approach and how to seek remedies under UK and European law if denied.

Deriding the Uber-Thatcherite Con Dem’s as intent on destroying all collective bargaining rights, cutting back on the right to strike and reducing individual’s employment rights he said they will introduce not a ‘Jim Crow’ law but a ‘Bob Crow’ law to further destroy working people. Like a contagious virus the UK is now seen as a serious threat in Europe. Whilst the soft underbelly of workers’ rights is under attack in Greece, Spain and Italy, France and Germany are starting to understand the damage done across the whole continent by the UK’s race to the bottom.

With the UK in breach of International Labour Organisation minimum standards (conventions 87 and 98) since the 1990’s, we need to urgently find cases, through the TUC and individual unions, to take to the European Court of Human Rights and challenge these abuses of employer power said Keith.

Jane Carolan (Policy Chair, UNISON National Executive Council) outlined in clear and precise detail the way the Tories are pursuing a political goal to end the post war welfare consensus in the UK. Outlining the stupidity of making massive cuts now, Jane stressed the need for an industrial response and community unity in defending the basic public services relied on by all working people (click here for Jane’s full speech).

John McDonnell MP recounted that throughout history employers want nothing else than high unemployment (to keep wages low) and the right to pick and choose workers as they see fit. Today the Tories are being ruthless in their attempts to force up unemployment and introduce legislation to restrict our ability to negotiate on behalf of members. Detailing the failures of New Labour to repeal anti union laws and then block attempts to repeal or change current laws, he outlined the thinking behind his Industrial Action (Minor Errors Bill) which was recently defeated in Parliament.

However his hopes lay with the movement of anger and frustration being built by workers on the back of the cuts now being made. Re-iterating previous speakers he said each aspect of the post war settlement – housing, health, education and welfare – that is being systematically demolished will cause a reaction and from that the trade unions must articulate the type of society they want and believe in. Opening up that debate and the role of the Trade Union movement in it, is critical to the process of defeating this government he said.

Specific sessions with Catherine Hobby on Whistle Blowing, Mark Bell on Equality and Chris Baugh on victimisation grounded the day in the realities and practicalities of the struggles ahead.

Inevitably no magical answers came from this conference. However the strength of the speakers and the depth of the audience contributions gave everyone lots of ideas and information to take back to their own unions and workplaces to help build a stronger and more united opposition to the attacks we all currently face.

Bob Oram