'As one door closes, another one opens...'
THE National Shop Stewards Network(NSSN) will be holding its annual conference on June 26,
and it is likely British Airways cabin crew will be speaking about their ongoing dispute, even if they have to hide their faces or appear in disguise to avoid yet more victimisation by BA boss Willie Walsh.
The employer has banned people from posting messages on Facebook or talking to local papers, taken disciplinary action against 50 workers, and sacked their branch secretary for taking time on union business,
before reaching for another High Court injunction on May 15.
"It's a free country", as we used to say.
Railway workers too have had their experience of court injunctions derailing their union's legally balloted strike actions. The National Shop Stewards Network was formed on an initiative from their union, RMT, arising from discussion at a conference it called on the crisis in working class political representation.
So the NSSN conference, which attracts workplace representatives, trades union council and branch delegates and workers from across industry and public services, is bound not only to hear reports from ongoing struggles but to consider the political and legal dimensions. We now face a Tory government committed to cuts and privatisation, to making working people and the poor pay for the rich capitalists' crisis, and armed with the Tory anti-union laws which New Labour so dutifully maintained for them while in office.
We have seen unions conducting ballots in accord with the law, only for the results to be challenged and even overturned on trivial, contentious, even fabricated reasons. John Hendy QC who has acted for the unions says he has been told by a senior judge that there is no right to strike in this country. (See also:
We heard the other day that Labour MP John McDonnell, who fought for a trade union freedom bill under the last Labour government, had withdrawn from the Labour leadership contest. Now, thanks to RMT trade unionist Janine Booth, writing in the Stroppyblog, is the good news:
As one door closes another one open: John McDonnell tops the poll in the Private Members' Bill Ballot.
John McDonnell MP has been drawn first in the Private Members' Bill Ballot today and has opted for a Bill to tackle abuse of trade union ballots by employers.
John McDonnell said:
"It's a funny old world, as one door closes another one opens. Coming top in this poll will enable me to tackle an abuse of the current employment laws by employers that I have tried to reform for the last 4 years."
"As we have seen in the current BA Cabin Crew dispute and many other recent disputes, employers have been able to exploit a loophole in the existing law by using minor technical errors in a trade union ballot for industrial action to frustrate the democratic decisions of trade unionists who wish to take action.
This resort to the courts by some ruthless employers is bringing current employment law into disrepute and undermining industrial relations in this country. The courts are being dragged into disputes and used as weapons in the hands of bullying employers. Even where there have been overwhelming majorities in ballots in favour of strike action, minor technicalities which would have no material effect on the outcome of the ballot, are being exploited to negate the democratic decision of the trade unionists involved.
This cannot be right and in the interests of good industrial relations needs to be addressed."
Over the past four years John has made several attempts to tackle this issue by introducing amendments to the then Government's employment legislation and promoting in Parliament the TUC backed Trade Union Freedom Bill.
I know some NSSN activists, including my good friend Dave Chapple, who is NSSN chair, have felt I attached too much importance to the Labour Party contest. They argue that Labour is past saving, and that anyway trades unionists must rely on their own strength rather than putting any faith in parliament. I can't say they are entirely wrong. Certainly that so few Labour MPs were even prepared to nominate a socialist says something about the parliamentary Labour Party.
Yet Labour was originally formed to defend trade union rights, as a result of the experience of the RMT's forerunners, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, confronting the Taff Vale judgement which said trade unions could not be indemnified against legal action for the results of striking. And until we have built an alternative, we might look at Labour today, and apply the saying that it is
"Better to light one small candle than to forever curse the dark".
So long as John McDonnell or any other MP does hold up that light, I am sure that everyone coming to the National Shop Stewards Network conference, whatever their views on the Labour Party, will agree on welcoming this news.
National Shop Stewards Network Conference, 11 am Saturday June 26, 2010,
South Camden Community School, London NW1