Published 27th July 2019.
By Riccardo la Torre (FBU) and Becky Crocker (RMT)
The 26 July edition of the Morning Star (newspaper of the Communist Party of Britain) contained a full-page article attacking the Free Our Unions campaign, by Unite activist Andy Green.
Green’s argument has three essential planks:
1. That Free Our Unions is a “front” for the socialist group Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.
2. That the campaign is unnecessary because there is already a Campaign for Trade Union Freedom (of which Green is national secretary).
3. That the demand of “making a public bonfire of Thatcherite [anti-union] Acts” is based on a “false premise” and an “absolutism” which the labour movement should “reject”.
1. It is well-known that Free Our Unions was initiated by The Clarion, and that Workers’ Liberty is central in both. In fact, spokespeople for the campaign are the main people publicising the Clarion-FOU connection; and the Free Our Unions webpage is still hosted on The Clarion website. The great majority of the The Clarion editorial board are not in AWL, but in any case the campaign has quickly involved a much wider layer of people. (The AWL can and surely will reply to Green’s attacks specifically on its organisation and political tradition.)
The Free Our Unions statement around which the campaign is based – calling for repeal of not just the 2016 Trade Union Act but all the anti-union laws introduced since 1980, and for Labour to make a clear commitment to this – was initiated by Lambeth Unison. It is now backed by 60 union organisations, including three national unions, FBU, RMT and IWGB – in the first two cases passed through their national conferences, the FBU unanimously and the RMT by a big majority. Green mentions none of this. The core involvement of Workers’ Liberty members is indisputable; we’ll let people judge the “front” accusation for themselves.
We suspect what is bothering some is precisely the fact that Free Our Unions has, starting small, won relatively wide support and done a lot in a short space of time.
2. There is an organisation called the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom. As far as we can see, it does not really function as a campaign, nor is it something that people, particularly rank-and-file activists, can readily get involved in. A quick look at its website will confirm this fact in numerous ways: even in terms of official union affiliations, presumably a major focus for it, the affiliation page was last updated for 2012-13. The CTUF seems to be essentially a rather inactive subsidiary of the Institute of Employment Rights think tank also mentioned in Green’s article.
In any case, as Green himself admits and as we explain below, the CTUF does not campaign for repeal of the anti-union laws.
Despite our criticisms, we have not acted in a hostile way to the CTUF or IER; in fact we have made approaches to both on various issues, but with no result and mainly no reply, until this attack.
3. What about the substantive issue: the claim that Free Our Unions is based on a “false premise” and an “absolutism” which the labour movement should “reject”? Green argues that a Labour government “could and should… restore a right to strike without necessarily making a public bonfire of the Thatcherite Acts of Parliament”.
This is more clarity on this point than usually comes from the CTUF and the IER, but still not very much. Is the argument that it is somehow possible to remove all the legal restrictions on workers’/union action imposed since 1980 without actually repealing the Tory laws? Or is it a political argument that we should aim for “a” right to strike, but not to remove all the restrictions?
If the former, why is the political goal of removing all the Tories’ restrictions – whatever the technical mechanisms – not argued for by the CTUF, the IER or, unfortunately, the Labour Party they advise? Why are most of the anti-union laws somehow different from the 2016 Trade Union Act, which these organisations do argue to repeal? And what has changed from the not-so-distant past when the leading CTUF and IER people did argue to remove all the restrictions and to do it by repealing all the anti-union laws?
If the latter, ie it is a matter of actual political disagreement, what restrictions on workers’ action are Green, the CTUF, the Morning Star, the CPB etc, in favour of a Corbyn government keeping in place? The requirement to give employers long notice periods? The ban on action in solidarity with other workers? Or on action around political issues such as climate change? The restrictions on picketing? Or what?
As Green himself says, “collective bargaining without a right to strike is reduced to collective begging”. But he does not seem to follow the logic of this point. Without restoring at least the rights workers have lost since 1979, the right to strike will remain extremely limited. While more institutionalised talks with employers may suit top union officials, it will not by itself necessarily or automatically put workers in a better place to organise and fight – which is what is needed to change the balance of forces in the workplace and society and revive the labour movement. Scrapping the anti-union laws is no panacea either, but it is crucial.
We believe that strategies and demands for our movement need to be explained clearly and debated openly, not shrouded in ambiguity and guarded by outraged defensiveness.
Free Our Unions argues that it is, minimally, necessary to aim for the removal of all the legal restrictions on workers’ action imposed since Thatcher first came to office; that this must necessarily involve repealing all the Tory anti-union laws; and finally that this goal should be proclaimed and fought for explicitly, publicly and militantly. A bonfire of anti-union laws is exactly what we want.
In fact we see repealing all the anti-union laws as a bare minimum: we argue for the clear formula which leading lights in the CTUF and IER used to use: the anti-union laws must be “repealed and replaced” with positive legal rights for workers and unions, including strong rights to strike and picket.
All this is in line with the policy passed at the 2015 and 2017 Labour Party conferences, which we argue for the party to fight for and pledge to carry out. It isn’t yet: the many good proposals on workers’ rights in the 2017 manifesto did not include these crucial ones.
We did not set out to create a formally organised campaign; Free Our Unions began as a statement, not an organisation. We moved to constitute the campaign as such precisely because it became clear to us that no one else was doing this work to any degree at all.
We found and still find it strange that, with the prospective of a left Labour government so tantalisingly close, our movement should retreat on the question of repealing the most restrictive anti-union laws in the Western world. Now is the time to push for freeing our unions and our movement, to give workers a chance to better organise and fight back.
We would like to conclude by quoting from the 1998 pamphlet Reclaim Our Rights – Repeal the Anti-Union Laws by Bob Crow, then RMT assistant general secretary, and John Hendy QC, who is today chair of the Institute of Employment Rights.
• Riccardo la Torre is a firefighter and secretary of the FBU’s Eastern Region. Becky Crocker is a railworker, RMT activist and former chair of the RMT Women’s Advisory Committee.
For the full 1998 pamphlet by Crow and Hendy, see here.
“The first task of the trade union and labour movement is to reveal the truth about these laws…
“In order for the unions to fulfil the purpose of maintaining and improving the conditions of their members’ working lives, unions have to have the legal freedom to operate. That means they must demand that the anti-union laws are repealed.
“No doubt the demand for repeal will draw contempt, criticism and scare stories from the press. But the arguments in favour of repeal and replacement are formidable and irrefutable. Furthermore, the movement has its own culture, history, images and analysis which are as persuasive as anything the media can create.
“More importantly still, if the movement does not go on the offensive with its ideas and vision, there is left a void which is filled only by the ideas and vision of its enemies.
“The demand for replacement of the anti-union laws must be pressed whether or not it is approved of by Mr Murdoch and his media empire which has such a formidable influence on Mr Blair. There is no reason for the labour movement to feel that it should not make demands of the Labour Government. That is its job!
“The labour movement should pursue a campaign for repeal and replacement with enthusiasm and energy. The movement has faced worse laws before and overturned them. Those familiar with labour history will know of the incredible achievements of getting the Trades Disputes Act 1906 [which established the legal immunities for strikes and industrial action largely destroyed in the 1980s] onto the statute book and getting the Industrial Relations Act 1971 [a test run for Thatcher’s anti-union laws] off it.”