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Editorial: Unshackling the unions is key to transforming the workplace

SCOTTISH Labour’s focus on restoring workers’ right to take solidarity action shows how restrictive the anti-union laws in this country are.

Leader Richard Leonard evoked the heroism of the Rolls-Royce workers who refused to repair jet engines for the air force of Chile’s brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet at a time Chilean trade unions were banned and socialists were being disappeared, tortured and murdered by that regime.

Given Britain’s Conservative government’s close military and trading links with some of the world’s worst human rights abusers such as Saudi Arabia — in whose murderous bombardment of Yemen we are deeply implicated — Bahrain, Turkey and Israel, the case for a “Nae Pasaran” law to allow workers here to show solidarity with their counterparts facing repression abroad is strong.

But actually the right to take secondary action is normal in most developed countries.

Britain’s total ban on sympathy and solidarity strikes, dating from the Thatcher period (the 1980 and 1990 Employment Acts), is exceptional.

As Tony Blair boasted as an indication of his pro-capitalist credentials, his government would maintain “the most restrictive union laws in the Western world.” 

These are not restricted to the ban on solidarity action — they concern everything from the archaic postal balloting system imposed on unions when consulting members on action, the restriction of lawful industrial action to narrowly defined workplace issues, to the ban on mass pickets and the closed shop.

The situation became even worse when the arbitrary thresholds unions now need to surpass when balloting on action were introduced by David Cameron’s government. 

But the ban on solidarity action remains one of the key planks of Britain’s repressive labour law framework and one of the biggest legal obstacles to the labour movement acting in unity.

Our ability to take action in solidarity with workers at other enterprises (or even workers at the same enterprise but employed by a different company) is more important than ever in a workforce sliced and diced by outsourcing, employment by shady “umbrella companies” and bogus self-employment. 

The ban on solidarity action is imposed at British, rather than Scottish level.

And Labour has already committed to rip up the country’s anti-union laws and re-empower workers.

But Leonard’s “wholehearted endorsement” of the Institute of Employment Rights (IER’s) Manifesto for Labour Law is important because devolved governments — as well as other levels at which democratic power can be expressed — do have options for shifting the balance of power in the workplace towards the worker.

The IER points to “coercive powers … in the form of contracts and licences.”

The Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford illustrated this at the Welsh Labour conference with his pledge to ensure companies receiving public money are “ethical and socially responsible.”

Refusing to commission companies that fail to pay a living wage or recognise unions to carry out public work is an obvious start.

But it is also clear that the wider the pressure for an end to the anti-union laws can be applied, the greater our chance of realising change.

When in 2014 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Britain’s ban on secondary action was not unlawful if it could be held that the government had enacted it with the “legitimate aim of protecting the rights and freedoms of others,” it argued that the maintenance of the ban by successive Tory and Labour administrations over 20 years was “evidence of a democratic consensus spanning a broad spectrum of political opinion” in favour of anti-union laws. 

In fact it was evidence that Britain’s main political parties were both in the hands of enemies of working-class power.

The Scottish and Welsh Labour conferences demonstrate across our nations that that is no longer the case.

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