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READERS of the Morning Star may have recently noticed a new campaign for labour rights has been launched, Free our Unions.
All very commendable. But if we dig a little deeper we discover not a broad-based campaign but a front organisation for the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL).
It therefore may pay to examine more closely the AWL and its antecedents as its leader and guru, Sean Matgamna, approaches his 80th birthday.
Matgamna certainly bears all the hallmarks of a stereotypical Trotskyist leader — a splitter whose role as leader and guardian of the doctrinal flame must be unquestioned.
His is a career marked by a series of schisms with firstly the Socialist Labour League (before its implosion latterly known as the Workers’ Revolutionary Party), then from Militant (now the Socialist Party), then from the International Socialists (now the Socialist Workers’ Party) and more recently sabotaging various fusions with another Trotskyist sectlet, Workers’ Power.
It’s much better to have your own party where your vision is unchallenged than have to deal with all of the problems of inner party democracy and competing ideas.
Matgamna launched Workers’ Fight in the late 1960s which has gone through various name changes, including Socialist Organiser, before arriving at today’s Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL).
Matgamna, though, has never achieved the stature within the labour movement of other Trotskyist leaders, for example, Tony Cliff with the publication of his The Employers’ Offensive: Productivity Deals and How to Fight Them.
Certainly he has never has never achieved the, probably unwished for, notoriety of Gerry Healy.
How then to measure the achievements of Matgamna’s half-century of activity in attempting to build a revolutionary vanguard party?
According to John Kelly in Contemporary Trotskyism: Parties, Sects and Social Movements in Britain, in 2016 the AWL had 140 members nationally.
Remarkably, from such a small membership base Kelly records that in 2016 the AWL held two seats on the executive body of the teachers’ union, the NUT (now the NEU), and zero in every other union.
Kelly also identifies successful broad social movements that have been either initiated or led, sometimes with others, by the Trotskyist left.
The Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (1966/International Marxist Group); the Anti-Nazi League (1977/Socialist Workers’ Party); the Anti-Poll Tax Federation (1989/Militant); Stop the War Coalition (2001/Socialist Workers’ Party); and, the People’s Assembly against Austerity (2013/Counterfire).
We look in vain for the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, or its predecessors, in this listing.
This lack of success has not been a discouragement for the AWL.
As we have observed, it has recently launched through one of its newspapers, The Clarion, a campaign for trade union rights, called Free our Unions because, in its opinion, the think tank the Institute of Employment Rights, and its allies in the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom have lost the plot.
In keeping with classical Trotskyism, it even has what it may imagine is a set of transitional demands — repeal all the anti-union laws.
A demand that it says other campaigning bodies have dropped.
Back on the shop floor it is clear that towards the end of the second decade of the 21st century, trade union membership has declined dramatically since the advent of Thatcherism and neoliberalism; from a high point of 13 million in 1979 it’s down to around six million today.
In terms of the proportion of workers in the workforce who are union members, it has fallen from a high point of 54 per cent to around 25 per cent today.
But the most important statistic behind the headlines is not the decline of trade union membership but the precipitous collapse in the coverage of union-negotiated collective agreements.
Collective bargaining — at its high point in 1980 ensured that 86 per cent of UK workers went to work on union-negotiated terms and conditions. That figure has fallen to around 20 per cent today.
It’s the loss of “trade union power” which translates as the collapse of collective bargaining that has led to workers getting poorer and, more recently, to the Uberisation of work in the period of neoliberalism.
As Professor Richard Wilkinson notes, the simultaneous collapse of collective bargaining and working-class living standards are not merely correlated but the latter is causally related to the former.
And it’s the framework of anti-union laws introduced under Margaret Thatcher and John Major in the 1980s and ’90s allied with the anti-union shift in public policy that were intended to do just that.
We can dismiss Conservative talk about the inequities of the closed shop or giving unions back to their members.
The legal shackling of union bargaining power was a deliberate move to restore to the 1 per cent that which they had lost in the post-war period of social democratic advance.
They were explicit about it — one of the 1980s laws removed from Acas an obligation to promote collective bargaining.
This dire legal situation has been compounded by the passing of the Trade Union Act 2016 that will only exacerbate the situation.
So, we are confronted simultaneously with two issues that I would argue have the same or similar causes and have the same or similar solutions.
First, we have the growth of poorly paid, precarious employment — what the Wall Street Journal recently called “the end of employees.”
Second, more generally, we have had a 30-plus-year collapse of working-class living standards and a shift of income and wealth back to the 1 per cent.
The cause of both of these phenomena has been, to a greater or lesser extent, the legal shackling of the unions and the shift in public policy away from collectivism.
The Campaign for Trade Union Freedom believes that it is absolutely in line with its objectives to support the advice that the Institute of Employment Rights has been giving the Labour front bench first articulated in A Manifesto for Labour Law, advice that ensured a progressive offer on labour rights in Labour’s 2017 manifesto.
Labour’s For the Many, Not the Few manifesto contained a 20-point labour rights reform programme including, most importantly, a commitment to establish mandatory sectoral collective bargaining.
Sectoral collective bargaining will be supplemented by enterprise level bargaining.
It is only through the re-establishment of union-led collective bargaining at the apex level will we see a shift of income and wealth away from the 1per cent and back towards the 99 per cent.
In the Campaign we are confident that statutory support for collective bargaining must mean a right to strike. Collective bargaining without a right to strike is reduced to collective begging.
A new Industrial Relations Act could and should, we believe, restore a right to strike without necessarily making a public bonfire of the Thatcherite Acts of Parliament.
It is not credible that the AWL does not realise this; its campaign is, not surprisingly, based on a false premise.
The Campaign for Trade Union Freedom is a fusion of the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions and the United Campaign to Repeal the Anti-Union Laws.
Shop stewards and activists should stick with the original and genuine and reject the absolutism of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.
Andy Green is national secretary of the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom. He is also Unite convener at Tilbury Docks; a member of the Unite executive council, docks & rails sector; and, a rank-and-file activist in the International Dockers’ Council.
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