Honour the Pentonville Five? Then fight to scrap all anti-union laws!

This is a discussion article, written by a supporter of Free Our Unions

150 people packed into the eve-of-Durham Miners’ Gala rally held by the Institute of Employment Rights (IER) think tank on 8 July. It was hung on the hook of the mass action that freed the “Pentonville Five” fifty years ago this month, and called for a “New Deal for Workers” to rebuild workers’ rights and power.

The IER is influential at the top of the labour movement, and was influential on the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party. It was a major influence on the New Deal for Workers policy at least in theory still promoted by the Labour Party.

The speakers in Durham included Mick Lynch of RMT; Karen Reay of Unite; Jo Grady of UCU; John Hendy QC; Barry Gardiner MP; and Laura Pidcock, former Durham MP and now national secretary of the People’s Assembly.

Some of the speeches were very good, making important points about current struggles and how we mobilise and rebuild the labour movement to halt the stream of defeats that began not long after the great victories of the 70s and is continuing today.

Rank-and-file, class-struggle activists in the unions whose leaders were speaking might have various criticism of their records and how they measure up to the ideas expressed. But in terms of the IER’s focus and the focus of the meeting, on legally defined workers’ rights, the main weakness was one long typical of the organisation.

The IER has long evaded and downplayed the demand to repeal Thatcherite restrictions on the right to strike (see here and here).

Laura Pidcock presented the policy she developed, working with the IER, when she was shadow secretary for employment rights (the blueprint for the New Deal for Workers policy linked above) as pretty ideal. But this policy too evaded repealing the anti-union laws – an issue which, for all its merits, Pidcock’s speech did not mention.

John Hendy referred to the existence of a ban on solidarity action – but made no call for the labour movement to fight for its repeal or repeal of the other Thatcherite anti-strike laws (given what the IER does and doesn’t argue and campaign for, it doesn’t go without saying).

Mick Lynch said something like: “Of course we want repeal of the anti-union laws – we want all those restrictions cleared away – but must also fight for positive rights.” That’s absolutely right – but Lynch spoke if there is a functioning consensus in the labour movement on demanding repealing of the Thatcherite laws, when quite the opposite is the case.

All the speakers pretty much ignored the point that the strikes and protests to free the Pentonville Five were also to defeat and overturn the 1971 Industrial Relations Act under which the Five were jailed – an anti-union law far less severe than those that exist today.

Demanding changes to trade union law is no immediate answer to the challenges the labour movement faces. We need a massive spreading and stepping up of political campaigning, protests and above all strikes, within and where possible in defiance of the laws as they exist. But demanding legal changes to facilitate those struggles must be one of our goals. And repealing restrictions introduced over decades on the right to strike – all of them – should be the central axis of those changes.

The last real-world TUC Congress, in 2019, resolved that the TUC should ensure this demand is “central to all campaigning around emploment and workers’ rights [including] the New Deal”. The IER rally was another reminder of how much work we have to do to make that the case.

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