A discussion article written by a supporter of Free Our Unions
At the 2021 Labour conference a “New Deal for Working People” Green Paper was published by shadow secretary of state for employment rights Andy McDonald – who then resigned over the leadership’s opposition to a £15ph minimum wage and living-wage-level sick pay. The Green Paper is as good as anything the party put forward under Jeremy Corbyn.
After much delay the party has now published the document online; for a while you could only find a scanned version on the websites of Momentum Internationalists and Free Our Unions. But it is hidden away, and has been published without fanfare or even, it seems, announcement. The left in the party, as well as affiliated unions, should seek to remedy that by loudly promoting the document and circulating it widely.
As well as many strengths, the document has some weaknesses.
The minimum wage
On the minimum wage it says: “Labour is demanding that the minimum wage is immediately raised to at least £10 per hour for all workers and will continue to evaluate what a real living wage should be… Labour will continue to assess how to deliver its commitment to raising the National Living Wage to ensure that it is adequate and addresses the rise in the cost of living and inflation since 2019… The role of the Low Pay Commission will be reformed so that the wage floor policy continues to be evidenced-based but is active as it can be in driving up wages.”
Labour first proposed a £10 minimum wage in 2017. The minimum wage is due to increase to £9.42 next year. The demand passed overwhelmingly by Labour conference was “£15ph statutory minimum wage”.
On sick pay the Green Paper says: “Labour will raise Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) and make it available [to] all workers, including the self-employed and those on low wages currently cut out by the lower earnings limit for eligibility.”
The conference demanded “Increasing statutory sick pay to a living wage, to be paid from day one of absence; and for the lower earnings limit that means low paid workers are not entitled to SSP to be abolished.”
There is no reason why the Labour leadership should not accept these demands on the minimum wage and sick pay as developing the Green Paper proposals further – except that it does not want to.
Employment tribunals and reinstatement
The Green Paper includes a range of measures to reform the operation of employment tribunals in the interests of workers and unions. However it does not include the crucial demand that tribunals should have the right to force employers to reinstate workers found to have been sacked unfairly. This obviously has major implications for those who take part in disputes and industrial action, as well as for a wide range of other issues including various forms of discrimination.
The anti-union laws and the right to strike
From the point of view of Free Our Unions, the Green Paper’s greatest ambiguities and weaknesses concern the crucial issue of the right to strike – and repealing the anti-union laws which severely constrain that right. As far as we know Andy McDonald has not expressed a position on this, unlike on the minimum wage and sick pay where he has made his support for conference’s demands very clear.
The Green Paper says: “Unions have been subjected to increasingly restrictive rules, most recently in the Trade Union Act 2016, which included arbitrary thresholds in industrial action ballots; complicated balloting and notice rules designed to make industrial action and union organising more difficult; and new restrictions on pickets.
“Even before the Trade Union Act came into force, the UK already had one of the most regulated systems of industrial action in the world, with unions having to comply with complex and often unnecessary legal requirements.
“These restrictions mean workers are denied their fair share of the wealth they create… The principle of solidarity[,] of workers being able to support each other is an important democratic freedom, and is vital to a healthy economy and society.
“The law regulating trade union activity has also not kept pace with changes in new technology and ways of working, such as the increased use of electronic communication, or the rise of the gig economy.”
In terms of reforms to address this situation:
“Labour will update trade union legislation so it is fit for a modern economy… Labour is committed to repeal anti-trade union legislation which removes workers’ rights, including the Trade Union Act 2016, in order to remove unnecessary restrictions on trade union activity…
“The law governing trade union statutory ballots is antiquated and fails to recognise the huge steps trade unions have made to engage and communicate with members. The current system of only allowing statutory trade union ballots via the post is costly for trade unions and their member[s] and significantly impacts turnout.
“Labour will allow trade union to use secure electronic and workplace ballots…
“Labour will examine how the requirement to give notice of industrial action should be simplified and ensure it reflects the dynamic nature of disputes.”
(There is also a supplementary document specifically on the question of restrictions on industrial action, but it not been published yet.)
That is good as far as it goes, but it does not go very far. It clearly suggests that many of the restrictions on the right to strike introduced after 1979 would remain under a Labour government.
Why should workers have to go through any state-mandated and regulated balloting procedure for strikes – rather than decide when to strike at whatever time and by whatever process they see fit?
What about the ban on solidarity action (which the Green Paper nods to, but does not commit to repealing) and on strikes for broader social and political demands (which it says nothing about)? What about restrictions on picketing, both in terms of numbers and picketing being limited to one’s own employer?
Labour conference 2021 voted twice for “repeal of all anti-trade union laws”, reaffirming policy passed in 2017, 2018 and 2019.
In line with this policy, we need to demand the repeal of all the anti-union/anti-strike laws introduced under the Thatcher and Major Tory governments. It must be at least as easy to take action, strike, picket, etc as it was in 1979. And in fact the rights gained by repealing the anti-union laws need to be bolstered by the introduction of positive legal workers’ rights, including strong rights to strike and picket.
In the words of the policy proposed by the Fire Brigades Union and passed by TUC Congress 2019: “workers need strong rights to join, recruit to and be represented by an independent union; strike/take industrial action by a process, at a time and for demands of their own choosing, including in solidarity with any other workers and for broader social and political goals; and picket freely.”
We should get the Green Paper out into the world, demand the Labour leadership commits to it – but also seek commitment to strengthening it in line with Labour conference policy.
• Read the Green Paper here.
• For the motion on workers’ rights passed by the 2021 Labour conference, which includes the demands on the minimum wage, sick pay and repealing all anti-union laws, see here, p24. For the Green New Deal motion, which also includes the anti-union laws demand, see here.