Workers’ rights and safety in Britain: Trade union mobilisation could force more Tory U-turns

Tory business secretary , Kwasi Kwarteng MP - forced to retreat on plans to attack union rights (Photo: Policy Exchange/Wikimedia Commons)

The Tories have made yet another U-turn. This time over their proposed review of employment laws and regulations post-Brexit.

The 12 Labour Party-affiliated unions had issued a statement on ‘the Tory threat to our workplace rights’. This was produced ahead of a Labour-sponsored parliamentary debate on 24 January in opposition to business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng’s plans.

The unions’ statement had promised to “fight tooth and nail to protect and extend our rights”. But the statement didn’t spell out a real intent to mobilise workers around a fighting programme.

The fact that this limited statement – which even right-wing trade union leaders like Christina McAnea from Unison, Paddy Lillis from USDAW, Warren Kenny from GMB and Roy Rickhuss from Community could sign up to – forced the government to retreat, gives an indication of what could be achieved if the leaders of the trade unions were to build a fighting movement to ‘protect and extend our rights’.

Bosses opt-out

The statement wrongly created the impression that the European Union (EU) has been the great defender of workers’ rights. This conveniently forgets the anti-worker basis of many EU rules such as the posted-workers’ directive, which targets national union-negotiated collective agreements, freeing up a ‘race to the bottom’ on pay and conditions. It also ignored the fact that some workers’ rights, such as the maximum 48-hour week under the working-time directive, have long had an opt-out in the UK, delivered for the bosses by the New Labour government.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown the huge potential to build a movement that could oppose and defeat any Tory plans to attack workers’ rights. The fact that the Tories have retreated so quickly on these initial proposals, without such a mobilisation being developed, is a sign of their weakness. That should now be built upon to face down the offensive that the Tories and bosses are raining down on workers.

The onset of the pandemic put all trends in the labour and trade union movement to the test. In the initial phase of lockdown last March, there was an almost total collapse of the union leaderships into ‘national unity’ with the Tory government and the bosses. Disputes were suspended and strikes were called off. While, predictably, the right-wing of the unions led the way in this, those leaders considered to be on the left, such as Mark Serwotka in the PCS, also capitulated to this pressure. He ‘parked’ the union’s full pay claim before the national executive committee had even had a chance to discuss it.

In September, TUC leader Frances O’Grady appeared in Downing Street alongside Tory Chancellor Rishi Sunak and the head of the CBI bosses’ federation to approve the government’s plans to water down the furlough scheme. However, as one of its 20-plus Covid U-turns, the Tories were forced to extend the Job Retention Scheme until the end of this March.

Actually, it is these Tory retreats that expose the weaknesses of the government. Often it has been forced back by mobilised opposition, such as that of A-level students over exam results last summer.

But the massive mobilisation of teachers, school support staff and education workers over the New Year over schools reopening inflicted the biggest retreat to date. It also points the way forward for an explicit union-organised movement, which would have the economic and industrial weight to not only push the Tories back but to put the unions centre stage in this crisis. In this way, they could become a pole of attraction for the millions of workers fighting ‘tooth and nail’ for their lives and livelihoods.

Workers are facing a barrage of attacks in both the public and private sectors. Already, Johnson has announced a pay freeze for public sector workers, on the back of a lost decade which has seen their incomes plummet. But the response from the unions has been virtually non-existent since this intention was announced in November last year.

While there are real obstacles due to the new Covid restrictions, the NEU education union attracted 400,000 to its online meeting against the unsafe reopening of schools. There needs to be a serious mass campaign that ties together the need to defend workers’ rights with a fight against the pay freeze in the public sector and the increasing use by bullying bosses of ‘fire and rehire’.

Outrageously, before its use in companies such as British Gas and British Airways, ‘fire and rehire’ was rolled out by the Labour council of Tower Hamlets in east London. Where was the condemnation of this by the Starmerite Labour MPs who took part in the parliamentary debate?

There are also likely to be further local authority cuts. In a public online meeting organised in the face of brutal cuts from deficit-stricken Labour-led Croydon Council, the Unison regional secretary said: “Central government has given councils no option but to cut.”

It is vital that the unions, particularly those on the left, demand that the Starmer-led Labour Party nationally, and labour controlled local government councils, refuse to pass on any more Tory cuts. A central element of building this pressure will be united industrial action by council unions – all Labour-affiliated.

But another weapon is for them and the Labour left to refuse to be constrained by pro-cuts Labour politicians and instead support anti-cuts candidates, such as those standing under the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition banner, in the May local elections.

Councillors have a choice

Unfortunately, in the same meeting, Labour MP John McDonnell’s video contribution clouded the issues, letting the right-wing Labour councillors off the hook by defining the main task as “campaigning to expose what the Tories are doing to our local councils.” In contrast, Onay Kasab, Unite regional officer with responsibility for council workers in the London and Eastern region, said: “We call on every single councillor, no more cuts. No more wielding the axe on behalf of the Tory government… Instead, fix budgets based on need.”

The mood of workers during the second pandemic wave and the return to severe lockdown has been very different from the first. The total incompetence of the Tories, their personal flouting of strict Covid rules, the cronyism of the corona contracts and the vicious bosses’ offensive, increasingly including the victimisation of union reps, have totally cut across any idea that there is a common cause.

There has been a rash of disputes, from British Gas to DHL, with strike ballots in BT and an increasing number of companies. In some of these, workers have forced the bosses back, such as at Rolls-Royce in Lancashire and, in British Airways. A collective fight against the offensive of the bosses and their Tory government will draw the millions of unionised and non-unionised workers to the trade unions. This is the best way to build on this Tory retreat and defend workers’ rights, their safety and living conditions.


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February 2021