Labourism at work

Government issues ‘Fairness at work’ white paper

This white paper is part of the government’s programme to replace the notion of conflict between employers and employees with the promotion of partnership. There will be no going back. The days of strikes without ballots, mass picketing, closed shops and secondary action are over. Even after the changes we propose, Britain will have the most tightly regulated labour market of any leading economy in the world. What we set out here are our proposals for an industrial relations settlement for this parliament.” Thus spoke Prime Minister Blair in his foreword to the white paper, Fairness at work, which was published last week.

‘Settlement’ is an apposite term, as the responses of big business and the trade union bureaucracy soon showed. “The Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress both said they were concerned about parts of the white paper, but indicated they could make the proposals work,” reported the Financial Times employment editor, Robert Taylor (May 22). Only the representatives of inefficient national capital, the Institute of Directors, the Engineering Employers Federation and the London Chambers of Commerce, spoke in condemnatory terms. The EEF talked of “damage to business efficiency”, while the LCC complained of “added costs to business” and of “a significant step backwards in labour relations”.

As anticipated, the white paper proposes that a minimum of 40% of workers eligible to vote must cast in favour of trade union recognition before a simple majority is considered valid. It also exempts from any recognition requirement firms employing under 20 workers. No less than five million workers are employed by these companies. But criticism on both scores was distinctly muted from those trade union leaders who, only two months ago, were threatening to mobilise huge demonstrations. John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB, called the white paper a “flawed jewel” and promised a “campaign to change it, before and during its passage into legislation”. The TGWU’s Bill Morris spoke in similar terms. Only Lew Adams, of the train drivers’ union Aslef, who was recently deposed as general secretary by Socialist Labour Party member Dave Rix, called for “an urgent recall of the full TUC Congress to ensure that current policies are unambiguously reaffirmed to the government” (Trade Union Review May 1998). Meanwhile, reassurance was forthcoming for media boss Rupert Murdoch, as the GPMU print union stated: “Wapping is not even in our top 100 targets” (Financial Times May 22).

A number of sops have been thrown to the union chiefs to encourage acquiescence. Firstly, there will be a ‘fast track’ to recognition, with no ballot being required, where unions can demonstrate to the Central Arbitration Committee that over 50% of a ‘bargaining unit’ are already union members. The CAC will also be able to rule on disputes over the definition of the appropriate bargaining unit for recognition purposes. And all union members will have the right to be represented by a union official or fellow employee in disciplinary and grievance procedures, even in workplaces where the union is not recognised. Taylor, of the Financial Times, suggests that advisers had warned Blair that the TUC’s so-called ‘new unionism’, with its emphasis on responsible partnerships in industry, could be put at risk if Monks was seen to be humiliated over the recognition issue.

The second major area of change proposed in the white paper is in the law relating to dismissal. Employees will be able to claim unfair dismissal, at an industrial tribunal, if they have at least one year’s employment, instead of two as at present. The TUC had obtained a commitment from the former Labour Party leader, John Smith, that rights should apply from day one in a job. This has now been abandoned in line with New Labour’s now explicit identification as ‘the party of business’. The white paper explains that the government accepts that employers need a year in order to be sure of being able to “correct errors in recruitment without excessive cost”. The present ceiling of £11,500 on compensation awards in unfair dismissal cases is to be removed. This will bring Britain into line with the European Union and its attitude towards discriminatory dismissals on the grounds of sex, race or disability.

Under the proposals complaints of unfair dismissal arising from official industrial action may now be considered at an industrial tribunal. Workers sacked during unofficial action will have no such right. Dismissals in the former case will not automatically be unfair, in the way that dismissals for pregnancy, for instance, are. Tribunals decide whether the employer had acted ‘fairly’ and ‘reasonably’. The white paper asks for views on what criteria tribunals should apply in deciding this matter. It also poses the question as to whether a flat-rate compensatory award should apply where dismissals are found to be unfair, rather than the now unlimited awards in other types of unfair dismissal.

On this item, too, previous Labour Party commitments have been very substantially diluted. Whilst campaigning during the Labour leadership contest, Blair himself stated, quite explicitly:

“I believe the next Labour government should … ensure that where industrial action [is] lawful, individual employees would have the right not to be dismissed for that action” (emphasis added - letter to secretary, Tameside Unison, July 12 1994).

Either way it remains the case that Labour is a different animal to the Tories. Where Thatcher sought to smash trade unionism without compunction, Blair seeks to discourage industrial action through both maintaining the main body of the anti-union laws and incorporating union officialdom. Independent rank and file working class initiatives remain outlawed. Indeed they will be more exposed under New Labour.

The union bureaucracy had complained that, due to the prevalence of victimisation, it was becoming difficult for them to recruit responsible shop floor union representatives. The white paper acknowledges this class collaborationist reason for addressing the problem, and outlines legislation to remove those areas in which discrimination on the grounds of union membership (or non-membership) or activities remains lawful: eg, denial of pay rises to union members who refuse to sign ‘personal’ contracts. Blacklisting of union members will be prohibited, although no explanation is given as to how this will be enforced.

Two ‘social chapter’ provisions are incorporated into the proposed legislation - a right to unpaid parental leave of up to 12 weeks while a child is under eight years of age, and the extension of statutory maternity leave entitlement from 14 weeks to 18 weeks to bring it into line with maternity pay. These reforms are announced in the name of “building a new relationship between work and family life”. They are woefully inadequate in comparison to what is needed: ie, free 24-hour nurseries and community restaurants, and the socialisation of housework.

Tory shadow industry secretary John Redwood described Fairness at work as “pay back time for the unions”. He was referring to two little publicised provisions tucked away in the document. The requirement for renewed authorisation for the deduction of union dues from pay every three years is to be abolished. Secondly, there is to be a review of the law and code of practice on industrial action ballots with a view to simplification, and the requirement for unions to hand over to employers the names of all employees to be balloted will be deleted.

But the real “pay back” comes with a reminder of the role expected of the unions by capital and its government:

“Of the 50 largest UK companies, 44 recognise trade unions. Trade unions can make the task of forging effective partnerships easier for employers and employees. Many trade unions now focus much more strongly on working with management to develop a flexible, skilled and motivated workforce.”

The Labour Party is still a bourgeois workers’ party. Groups like the Socialist Party are mistaken in seeking to deny this. For the time being, Labour continues to carry out its historic role - tying the workers to capitalism; preventing the workers from becoming a class for itself. The role comes natural and easy.

Just as TUC leader JR Clynes could admit, in 1925: “I am not in fear of the capitalist class. The only class I fear is our own”; today we can still see the fear and loathing of the bureaucracy towards groups of proletarian fighters like the Liverpool dockers. Just as TUC general secretary Walter Citrine could write, in 1927, that the future line of development of the trade union movement should be “in the direction of making workers’ organisations an integral part of the economic machinery of society”; today John Monks eulogises ‘new unionism’ and ‘social partnership’ and declares unions to be “part of the answer for employers facing the pressures of change and competition”.

If it was not already crystal clear, it must now be so, that the incumbent union leaderships have no thought of achieving the repeal, let alone the smashing, of the 1980s raft of anti-union laws. They have demonstrated, once again, their incapacity and their unwillingness to lead a real fight.

Herein lies Arthur Scargill’s opportunity, through the Reclaim Our Rights initiative, and also the source of his open difference with his fellow SLP national executive committee members, Bob Crow and John Hendy, who want to rely on the TUC. Scargill on the other hand sees his chance to build an alternative leadership based on left union bureaucrats gravitating towards ‘his’ SLP. By deferring the national ROR demonstration until May I 1999 he hopes to build up a head of steam and win the allegiance of thousands of discontented union activists.

Revolutionaries, while welcoming the ROR initiative, realise that permanent advance cannot be ‘delivered’ by labour dictators. We must argue for what is really needed - a revolutionary rank and file organisation, a new Minority National Movement and a reforged CPGB.

Derek Hunter