Employment and Trade Union Rights


Contribution to Coventry Trade Union Council autumn Conference - 28th November 2002 


Employment law, workers and trade union rights are simple things, though of course fortunes are made in wrangling about their definitions. They are simple because they reflect the balance of forces in the struggle between labour and capital.


For twenty five years that balance in Britain has been strongly tipped in favour of capital. At the heart of the Thatcher programme was the destruction of free trade unionism and the power of organised labour. The ten most punitive anti trade union, anti worker Acts that her government brought in remain in my view largely untouched in their most fundamental of respects.


The anti worker legal framework leaves us with  one of the most hamstrung trade union movements in the world and some of the worst employment law. No wonder the TUC and others continue to point out that Britain is in breach of the key ILO and UN conventions and charters.


The Government says we should be grateful for what we have received. The National Minimum Wage, the Employment Relations Act, family friendly policies etc.


But consider: we still have low pay. The NMW gives 4.20 an hour, just over £8,000 per annum for a 40 hour week. This is a long way short of the European Decemncy threshold which averages £7.61 an hour, or over £13,000 a year.We have the British government opting out of the working time directive, so we 1 in 5 workers working more than 60 hours a week. We have the Equal Pay Act but till women only earn 82% of male earnings.


The legal framework we operate within is very bleak indeed.


There is no right to strike in Britain. Even if you go through all of the hoops of legal balloting for industrial action you are only protected in law for eight weeks, and as we have seen at Friction Dynamics it then becomes entirely legal for the employer to sack you while in industrial action.


It’s fairly basic of course but no worker has a right to be represented by a trade union at work. We simply have a right to be accompanied by a trade union official who may make an opening statement for us.


You have to remind yourself of the basics. The most basic of all. We have no right to work in this country. I have always believed that the introduction of the Redundancy Pay Act in the sixties spelt the death of trade union organisation and industry. Instead of forcing a right to be employed, the Act enforced a right to be sacked and to squabble over the terms. In my view this created a fault line in the whole balance of power equation and it gave power to employers to up sticks and run, and short change to workers. We lack the right to have a democratic say in the vast wealth that we create. Capital is exported from Britain every day and companies come and go with little intereference. Longer consultation rights prolong the agony if you cannot keep the plant and skills and capital here.   We should study the law of investments from Cuba to see how real workers’ rights can be asserted. In terms of basic rights of this sort, there’s no right to live in peace and no right to food is there ?


Don’t forget too there is no right to collective bargaining. All the new recognition arrangements are fraught. Let me give one example. We have recruited in a workplace and got 100% membership of the full time workers. The employer refused voluntary recognition. We took the employer to the Central Arbitration Committee. The employer said the union might have 100% of the full timers but  over the last twenty years we have used hundreds of volunteers in our organisation and we have them all on our books and may call on them some time in the future. We said some of them are dead and some live in Australia ! The CAC did not want to tackle this fundamental problem of what constitutes a worker or ‘employee’.


If a union wants to take legal industrial action it must go through a  cloud of mustard gas of regulations designed to neutralise the effectiveness of the action and strengthen the hand of the employers.


Of course workers in employing organisations with less that 21 employees have very few collective or individual rights at all. About a quarter of the entire workforce are in this sector.


Workers’ with less that a year’s service have few employment protection rights and it is now TUC policy that all rights should apply on Day One.


If you look at it workers do not of course have a right to belong to a trade union which can control its own rule, book, funds and industrial action methods. Our Unions, which in the late sixties and early seventies fought of state control over our internal affairs are now amongst the most state controlled there are. If a 100% of a particular workforce join Union x, there is no right guaranteed that the employer could not recognise Union y instead.


There are no really substantial rights to paid time off for trade union duties. You haven’t even really got a right to education and training at work. There’s no right to be literate or numerate.


If a worker is injured, maimed or even killed at work they and their families have no right to see the negligent employer fined or imprisoned in any way really commensurate with their crime.


Workers paying into pension schemes have no real rights of control over this part of their pay packet.


Not many rights to complain about the employers, but plenty of rights for workers to complain about their trade union. The aptly named CROTUM is still there and workers with an axe to grind against collective action can use him. A member of my own Union, a national executive member in fact, applied for the job of a member who had been sacked for refusing to sign a non union approved contract. We disciplined her and she’s taking us to court.


As the European Union encroaches more on our lives and they seek economic and monetary union they are also seeking harmonisation of laws alien to our democratic traditions which augment a range of employment rights. The right to trial by jury is under attack as is the habeas corpus which preserves the right not to be detained in custody with charge. Of course, if we enter the single currency we face an even greater loss of rights – the loss of right to vote for an independent government of a self determining nation.


But at the heart of the injustice facing trade unions and workers is the ban on solidarity industrial action. This I believe has been the most pernicious piece of legislation we have faced. It removes the very corner stone of class conscious action which is solidarity with the political cause of a brother or sister in another workplace.


Over the years various unions have sought to redress our lack of rights through campaigns and TUC motions. There has been a breakthrough over the last couple of years and  TUC policy has moved forward to a campaign for a Charter of Workers’ Rights and a repeal of the iniquities of the previous legislation. A meeting was held amongst trade unionists last week under the banner of the united campaign for a charter for workers’ rights and there is broad agreement that the excellent work of the Institute of Employment Rights points the way ahead for us all. I urge you all to inform yourself of their work and to purchase their key publication. We need a united campaign and we need above all a return to the consciousness amongst workers that it is right to act in support of each other and in this process if we must defy the law, we must. The current laws are asses.


John Hendy 0207 269 0365


PO Box 17556, London, EC2Y 8PA.


Geoff Webb 0207 269 0365





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