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Morning Star STUC fringe meeting calls to 'defend and extend' workers' rights

SCOTTISH TUC delegates discussed the need to “defend and extend” workers’ rights at the Morning Star Congress fringe meeting yesterday.

Ben Sellers of the Institute of Employment Rights said people had been shocked by the way P&O sacked 800 workers and replaced them with others on lower pay — “but they shouldn’t have been because this has been going on, though not in such a public, brazen way, for years and years.”

What P&O management had done was just to “price in the cost of breaking employment law. And that says an awful lot about the state of employment law in this country.”

The attacks on workers’ rights hadn’t happened overnight but rights had been “salami-sliced” away since the Thatcher era, “from the restriction on lawful picketing to the introduction of postal ballots and outlawing secondary action.

“Individually these might seem like fairly technocratic changes or incremental reforms as they were sold — but together they amount to a radical programme of anti-trade union laws.

“It’s important to get that in the public domain and talk about how we lost our rights and how that relates to the cost-of-living crisis.”

Sellers called for support for People’s Assembly demonstrations over the cost-of-living crisis, but argued that “we have to link it to the attacks on trade union rights and the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom.”

Britain was an outlier in Europe with just 20 per cent of workers protected by collective bargaining agreements, compared to an average of 60 per cent across the Continent.

It had been 82 per cent at the beginning of the Thatcher era, he said. And in the same period the real value of average wages had fallen by 8-10 per cent since the 1970s.

He spoke of the excitement of having worked on a programme to restore and extend workers’ rights with Laura Pidcock when Jeremy Corbyn led Labour, and stressed the need to work to hold the current Labour leadership to the IER’s Manifesto for Labour Law.

Convener of Unison Scotland Lilian Macer discussed the role of the Fair Work action plan in addressing a crisis of in-work poverty, with two-thirds of children in poverty living in a household where someone is in work and 19 per cent of Scottish workers receiving less than the real living wage.

Macer said the Scottish government shouldn’t be waiting to set up a national care service to establish sectoral collective bargaining for social care, but could do this immediately.

Macer, who sits on the STUC general council, later moved the composite motion on Fair Work to Congress, pointing out that leaving the EU meant European laws and directives on procurement no longer applied and the Scottish government should apply Fair Work principles in public procurement.

Unite Scotland’s Mary Alexander agreed, saying the Scottish government had huge leeway to improve working conditions by refusing to commission services from employers who break rules or pay poverty wages.

“In Scotland the construction spend is something like £6-7 billion and over half of that is public money being spent through local authorities, through Transport Scotland, through the NHS,” she pointed out.

Morning Star editor Ben Chacko said that even harsher anti-union laws were on their way, noting Lord John Hendy QC’s warning that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill contains clauses that will allow police to shut down picket lines on a whim.

While a race to the bottom on rights expressed the ideological commitment of key members of the Boris Johnson government to the deregulating vision outlined in Britannia Unchained, a fightback over the worsening cost-of-living crisis was not possible in a framework that accepted the capitalist system and economic status quo, he argued, saying Labour both at British and Scottish level and the Scottish National Party were incapable of leading such a fightback.

While the SNP’s nationalism undermined class politics, Labour was also cracking down hard on any expression of class politics, meaning the trade union movement would need to take the lead in campaigning for a political alternative — with Labour’s two Corbyn-era manifestos a good starting point.

Chacko ended by outlining the serious hit to the Morning Star’s circulation and finances during the pandemic, and stressed the urgency of winning new regular readers to ensure the labour movement continues to have a voice, especially with soaring inflation increasing the paper’s costs in terms of printing and distribution.

The meeting was chaired by Unison’s Kate Ramsden and sent its thanks to Morning Star Scotland campaign committee chair John Foster for organising the fringe. Delegates sent their best wishes for a quick recovery to him as he was unable to attend the meeting for health reasons.

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