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For too long, trade unions have been held back: we must set them free

Fire Brigades Union general secretary MATT WRACK writes in support of the Free Our Unions campaign

THE labour movement today faces opportunities we have not had for decades. There is the possibility of a radical Labour government within just months.

Now is the time to discuss, debate and decide how we can build the power of working-class people.

Central to that aim is strengthening and rebuilding the trade union movement.

Labour last year pledged to revoke the punitive 2016 Trade Union Act. It was a signal that this Labour government will be unlike those of the recent past — this will be a party with the values of Labour, not just the name.

But revoking that one Act of Parliament is not enough. There are decades of anti-union laws, going back to the Thatcher era, that continue to shackle our movement.

That’s why, at FBU conference in May, firefighters voted overwhelmingly to back the Free Our Unions campaign.

I was disappointed to read Andy Green’s article attacking Free Our Unions (July 26).

I respect his opinion and the work of the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom, to which we are also affiliated.

We agree that the balance of power should be shifted towards workers. But we cannot achieve that aim while bound by decades of laws which restrict our rights to organise and fight back.

On this issue, as any, it is right that there be some comradely debate. To address a key argument of Andy’s article, it is not our view that Free Our Unions is a “front” for the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL).

Indeed, Andy seems to make this point merely as a mechanism to avoid the substantive issues: where do we stand on trade union rights and anti-trade union laws?

This debate within the FBU arose partly from a session at last year’s Labour Party Conference.

The national policy forum report on trade union rights mentioned only repeal of the 2016 Trade Union Act.

The FBU delegation at the conference discussed this and intervened to make clear that such a step, while welcome, was not remotely adequate. Our comments were widely supported.

I made a similar intervention at a recent meeting of the TUC executive, again without opposition.

I am surprised that the position we argued for appears to cause such concern to Andy Green. It has been a commonly held position on the left for many years — or at least I thought it was.

The Free Our Unions statement, around which the campaign developed, was launched last year by Lambeth Unison.

It now has the support of 60 branches, trades councils, reps’ bodies, etc, and three national unions — the RMT, IWGB and, my own union, the FBU.

Free Our Unions has moved from a loose group campaigning around a statement to a formally constituted campaign, not out of any desire to create a rival to the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom, but because an organisation campaigning on this is badly needed.

The reality is that our movement has largely retreated from the demand to restore the rights removed by the Tories in the 1980s and ’90s — albeit without open debate on the issue.

Free Our Unions seeks to redress that position. My own union opposes all the anti-union laws. How far we can achieve that will be determined in political struggle, but if we start out by lowering our ambitions, we will be doomed to failure.

It will not be lost on readers that a Corbyn government would face huge obstacles and challenges from the powerful forces opposed to our movement.

Regrettably, we are all aware that there has also been consistent opposition — and occasional sabotage — from some within our movement, including among MPs.

Unless the trade unions and Labour Party are clear and firm in setting out far-reaching demands on workers’ rights, we risk strengthening those who were content during the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown years for nothing to be done on these issues.

Finally, to address the substantive issues of Friday’s feature: promoting the restoration of collective bargaining is of prime importance. It is not, however, a panacea.

We have collective bargaining in the fire service, and it has not stopped attacks from employers or from government. We need to strengthen our position to fundamentally shift the balance of power.

As Andy says himself, “collective bargaining without a right to strike is reduced to collective begging.”

That is precisely why repealing the anti-union laws is vital. He states that Labour “could and should … restore a right to strike without necessarily making a public bonfire of the Thatcherite Acts of Parliament.”

It is not at all clear what he means by this. Is the argument that it is technically possible to remove the legal restrictions on trade union action imposed since 1980 without actually repealing the Tory laws?

Or is it a political argument that we should aim for “a” right to strike — undefined here — but not to remove all the restrictions? If so, what restrictions should we favour a Labour government keeping?

To maximise our chances of fighting and winning, workers need the right to take action at a time, and for demands, of our own choosing.

That means a right to picket freely and to take action in solidarity with any other workers and over political issues, whether that is austerity, building safety, international solidarity or climate change.

Removing all the Tory restrictions must be our goal; I cannot see how this is possible without repealing the Tory laws.

We need to go further, to win positive legal rights — but repealing the anti-union laws should be the baseline. In the words of Bob Crow, we need to repeal and replace.

We need to exert friendly but firm pressure on the Labour Party to commit to this, not advise them to evade the issue.

The 2015, 2017 and 2018 Labour Party conferences voted for a policy to repeal all the anti-union laws and replace them with positive legal workers’ rights, including a strong right to strike.

There is a mandate in the party for such a position — we seek to empower it.

For too long, trade unions have been held back. We must work together for the good of all unions and all workers.

Workers in this country have been stripped of their power — and freeing our unions is central to restoring it. To quote James Larkin, “The great appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise!”

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