Sunday, March 17, 2013

Defending trade union rights

 JOHN McDONNELL MP with workers in struggle.

LABOUR MP John McDonnell seemed optimistic recently that the Labour Party was moving to the left. Maybe these things are relative, but as an MP who has steadfastly supported workers in struggle and tried to cut back the claws of Tory anti-union legislation during the last Labour government, John McDonnell did not let his optimism blind him to what Labour front-benchers were up to in a debate last week on the new National Crime Agency.

The Con Dem government is using the bill setting up this Agency to bring in new restrictions on the rights of workers who would be employed in the Agency.

Elfyn Llwyd, a Plaid Cymru MP pointed out: 
"As we know, clause 12 would prohibit unions from instigating a strike affecting any officers working for the National Crime Agency who have operational powers. That would include the director general of the NCA, and it would give power to the Home Secretary to take civil action against any person or persons who might call, or incite, such a strike. The Government seem to regard the serious-minded people who will be working in this field as little less than children who might run off on a whim and call a strike for no reason at all. The quality of those people does not indicate that that is the kind of thing they would do, but I do not think they should be deprived of rights that most workers are accorded. It is only right and proper for the Government to take a respectful approach to those workers and allow them the negotiating rights and further rights that most people have."

Clause 13 would enable the Home Secretary to pass regulations fixing the pay and conditions of NCA staff, while another Clause would allow some jobs such as fine collection to be privatised.

The Welsh MP was supporting amendments moved by John McDonnell who chairs the PCS union's group in the Commons, and who warned that the clauses included in the NCA bill were the thin end of the wedge for depriving the unions of negotiating rights.

So what did the Labour leaders do to oppose this attack on union rights?  They abstained.  Here is John's understandable reaction:

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington, Labour)
Let me say to my hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench that I am extremely shocked by what has been said—that they are not willing to support my amendments. This is the first time in the history of the labour movement—the first time ever in the history of the Labour party—that this party has supported in Parliament the removal of trade union rights from trade unionists. That is a significant step and marks a historic change in attitude. I urge those on the Front Bench to use these moments in this debate to think about what they are doing.
This is the party that campaigned to redress the disgraceful treatment of GCHQ workers—if people remember—all through the ’80s and ’90s, when a Conservative Government removed their trade union rights. This is the party that gave commitments to the Prison Officers Association that we would address its complaint that a Conservative Government had removed the right to take strike action from prison officers. I urge Labour MPs and others—anyone who is in the Chamber and anyone watching this debate outside—to understand what is happening here today, because this is significant. This is not a minor matter; this is about taking away a basic human right from a group of workers. It has never been done before in the history of our party.
Commons Debate
It has become a cliche of irony to remind ourselves that it was the unions which founded the Labour Party to defend our rights in parliament.
I hope union leaders will have something to say about this latest betrayal. Some of them will have their chance next Saturday, when a rally is being held at Friends Meeting House to launch a Campaign for Trade Union Freedom.

A message says "New Speakers Added: TUC's Head Of Equalities and Employment Rights Sarah Veale
Carolyn Jones, Director of the IER;
Michelle Stanistreet, GS of the NUJ
John Hendy QC
Roger McKenzie, UNISON AGS

Plus: Len McCluskey, General Secretary, Unite the Union
Billy Hayes, General Secretary, CWU
Bob Crow, General Secretary, RMT
Manuel Cortes, General Secretary, TSSA
Kevin Courtney, Deputy General Secretary, NUT"

The Campaigns for Trade Union Freedom is a merger of the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU) and the United Campaign to repeal the Anti-Union Laws."

  The LCDTU was going when I was a lad though it seems to have been revived with, of course, new people, in recent years. The United Campaign to repeal the Anti-Union Laws emerged during the 13 years of New Labour government which kept Thatcher's laws on the statute book, and saw them used to deny workers the union solidarity to which they were entitled.  John McDonnell was I believe one of the few MPs that spoke for it.

I notice John is not listed among the speakers for this rally, but then no MPs are. I also notice however that the PCS union's Mark Serwotka, a popular speaker whether at rallies or holding the union fort in TV panel discussions, is not among the general secretaries listed, and nor is PCS president Janice Godrich. PCS members are immediately affected by the government's latest moves and are also taking industrial action on Budget Day, this coming Wednesday.   

The anti-union laws should have been fought against and buried while Labour was in office, instead of union leaders tamely submitting and handing over our funding to the party that was in government. Still better late to fight than never, and despite the top heavy appearance of this campaign at first it does seem to be reaching out for branches and others to affiliate. 

It should be interesting to hear what our leaders have to say on Saturday, and a good turn out will at least stop anyone excusing inaction by alleging 'apathy'.  

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