Campaigning For Free Trade Unions

Vic Turner, dockers leader and one of the founders and President of the LCDTU  lead away by the police at Midland Cold Storage in 1972. © Peter Arkell/




By Andy Green, National Secretary Campaign For Trade Union Freedom

Recently in the Morning Star FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack responded to an earlier piece in the paper penned by myself in which I was critical of the newly launched ‘Free Our Unions’ campaign suggesting that it was little more than a front for the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.

Matt made some very important points in his article and of course it makes no sense to engage in a war of words with comrades representing unions with a long and proud history of standing up for trade union freedom; in Matt’s case the FBU and I would also include the RMT in this group.

As the Secretary of the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom, I’m pleased to say that FBU and RMT have been and remain active affiliates of the Campaign.

I want to broadly set out the position of the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom.

The Campaign is a linear descendent of the Liaison Committee For The Defence of Trade Unions which as is well known had an exemplary record in opposing the anti-union White Paper In Place of Strifeand what came later, the Industrial Relations Act 1971.

The LCDTU was of course the driving force behind the campaign to free the Pentonville 5.

The Labour Government of the 1970s went a long way in righting the wrongs of the Heath years but by 1980 and the first of Thatcher’s new wave of anti-union laws any idea of further advance was brought to a shuddering halt. The TUC was of course correct to call a one day stoppage in protest about this first move against us, in our naivety we had no real idea about the neo-liberal assault that was about to be unleashed. This was not Heath mark II but a step change in the attack on the working class and its unions.

Almost every other year in the early Thatcher period a new piece of anti-union legislation was passed. The anti-union legislative attack of course continued under John Major. All of these developments were opposed by the Liaison Committee.

The very limited Blair reforms received short shrift from many unions and campaigning groups, including the Liaison Committee and others such as the United Campaign for the Repeal of the Anti-Union Laws and Press for Union Rights. Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair made it very clear that what was in their 1999 Act was it, take it or leave it, and they meant it.

To recap, these so-called reforms were:

  • a very limited and complex union recognition procedure that granted exemption to small firms which of course were the main area of employment growth
  • the right to be accompanied, but not necessarily represented, by a union rep when facing disciplinary action if a union member working where the union was not recognised
  • a package of family friendly rights at work

In other words, nothing on trade union rights or undoing the wrongs of the Thatcher era, the Blair years were wasted years.

My sketch of the past 50 years is drawing to a close with the advent of the Tory lead Coalition in 2010 and the subsequent Conservative government since 2015. The Coalition with Vince Cable as Secretary of State introduced a series of mainly anti-worker with some anti-union measures, which became known as the Beecroft proposals, all of which was documented and opposed by the now merged Campaign for Trade Union Freedom.

The Trade Union Act 2016 introduced by the Tories led with two specific lines of attack; firstly, the introduction of thresholds in industrial action ballots was intended to make it even more difficult for unions to organise lawful industrial action; and, secondly, the attack on unions’ political funds was clearly aimed at breaking the unions’ link with Labour and effectively bankrupting the Labour Party.

The Campaign sought to mobilise opposition to this new law at the Bill stage, reprising a slogan from forty-five years previously “Kill The Bill.”

Then as now, I believe that the essence of any campaign for free trade unions must support and promote two key aims:

  • the right of unions and workers to take industrial action for both economic and political purposes, on issues both at home and overseas; and,
  • the right of unions to determine their own rules free from state interference.

The Corbyn insurgency within the Labour Party represents the first opportunity we have had to break the neo-liberal grip on trade union rights that has existed since 1980 and to make some progress on our key aims.

In my original Morning Star article I wrote:

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
.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 1 per 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.

We know the Shadow Cabinet team is being advised by some of the trade union movement’s closest legal advisers, so we are prepared to wait and see how extensive a right to strike is within the new legislative framework after the next General Election.

Labour’s Shadow Employment Secretary Laura Pidcock

I am not a confidant of Laura Pidcock MP but I take it as a given that there will be direct rights and solidarity rights and I believe that there will be rights in connection with matters overseas.

Although it remains an important point of principle we do need to ask how useful a call for a blanket repeal would be in practice.

Take for example my own position. As a consequence of the 1984 Act, I have been directly elected on to the Unite EC to represent the Docks & Railways Sector by Unite dockers and railway workers across Britain and Ireland.

No one would seriously suggest taking from our members the opportunity to vote for all of their executive members.

Rather, our call should be – and is  – for unions to be free to control their own Rule Books, a right enshrined in ILO Convention 87 and reflected in Labour’s 2017 Manifesto.

The promise to repeal the 2016 Act will relax some restrictions on the right to strike and reverse the attempt to bankrupt the Labour Party by repealing the latest restrictions on political funds; the 10 yearly ballots on political funds should also go as well. As an aside, I have often wondered why, in the context of reclaiming our rule books, a call to repeal of the 1911 Act that forced the unions to have political funds separate from their general funds has never found favour.

There is however no incongruity for the Campaign in supporting the advice being given by the Institute of Employment Rights to the Labour Front Bench that will break the 40 year grip of neo-liberalism. The labour rights offer in For the Many, Not The Fewwill provide for an extensive and positive new legal framework for unions, their members and workers generally.

Whatever is in the package does not mean that the Campaign is demobilised; it may well be that further work will be necessary on the right to strike and reclaiming our rule books.

Andy Green is National Secretary of the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom. He is also Unite convenor 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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