In Britain today a staggering 70% of our people are not covered by a collectively bargained agreement, a percentage that is growing. They are effectively on their own, at the whim of their employer on a wide range of issues. This was of course the deliberate intention of Margaret Thatcher, Nicholas Ridley and their right-wing friends back in the 1980’s and 1990’s. However, this was and is in direction opposition to the stated purpose of the International Labour Organisation’s “Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work” which says this:
“…Declares that all Members, even if they have not ratified the Conventions in question, [c87 and c98] have an obligation arising from the very fact of membership in the Organisation, to respect, to promote and to realise, in good faith and in accordance with the Constitution, the principles concerning the fundamental rights which are the subject of those Conventions, namely:
- freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining;
- the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour;
- the effective abolition of child labour; and
- the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation…”
However, a much stronger obligation sits on the shoulders of the United Kingdom in view of the fact that the UK has ratified Convention 98 on the Right to Organise and Bargain Collectively. Further, in a Resolution of 1970 concerning trade union rights, the ILO underlined the vital role of free trade unions by instructing the Secretary General to pay particular attention to the following questions:
- right of trade unions to exercise their activities in the undertaking and other workplaces;
- right of trade unions to negotiate wages and all other conditions of work;
In 2008, on the 60th anniversary of the adoption of Convention 87 on the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise, the ILO published a Global Report covering the ILO ‘Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work’ and also Conventions 87 and 98. The Executive Summary began with this statement:
“…All workers and employers have the right to establish and to join organisations of their choice to promote and defend their respective interests, and to negotiate collectively with the other party. They should be able to do this freely, without interference by the other party or the State. Freedom of association is a fundamental human right and, together with collective bargaining rights, a core ILO value. The rights to organise and bargain collectively are enabling rights that make it possible to promote democracy, sound labour market governance and decent conditions at work…”
They went on to say “The role of governments in providing for an enabling environment is of paramount importance”. We know this only too well in Britain today! But the anti-union laws enacted by Thatchers Tory governments, (and disgracefully maintained virtually intact by the Labour governments of Blair and Brown) were not the only Tory government model for collective bargaining, as Professor Keith Ewing points out. Keith tells us, “In 1938 the then Minister of Labour, Ernest Brown, announced in the Commons that the policy of the then (Tory led) government was to promote collective bargaining. Why? He did not say. But presumably to raise wages, to increase equality, to increase the circulation of money and to stimulate demand. As he knew, workers spend their money, the rich hoard it. As a result, by 1946 (aided by a wartime economy) collective bargaining and wages council coverage reached 86% of the labour force.”
In the UK today, there is a great need for trade union freedom, for an end to the anti-union laws of the past, for a positive approach to collective bargaining and the re-distribution of income and wealth. The only proven mechanism for winning a measure of dignity and justice at work is through free and independent trade union organisation resulting in effective collective bargaining. But what is the present reality for so many ordinary folk in their jobs today, with only 30% of the workforce covered by a collectively bargained agreement, (a figure that is still falling). It is not just that they have no say in their pay and conditions, but as employers increasingly try to foist ‘individual contracts’ on workers which give outrageous new powers to the employer to arbitrarily change their terms and conditions, workers find that in matters of pensions, equality, health and safety, hours, job security, the way they are treated and much more, that they have no power! They are learning that the individual is weak.
Trade unions are built upon simple principles. These in include three key ones; Combination, Solidarity and Collective Bargaining. Jack Jones quoted a poem which summed up the point: “You cannot be a trade unionist, no matter how you try, unless you think in terms of we, and not in terms of I”
Today’s Labour leadership is uncertain of its direction it seems.
A Conference Leaders speech portrayed by many as move to the left was quickly emphasised as being nothing of the sort, as being in the middle ground. Thatchers anti-union laws regarding ballots and closed shops, along with sale of council houses were fully supported by Ed Miliband. But no condemnation of public service strikes this time. Surely, what we all need is a commitment to greater equality in the UK, to a closing of the gap between the richest and poorest, to emulate the Scandinavian social model and not the American free capital model?
The great reforming Labour Government of 1945-51 did some amazing things. It nationalised the Coal mines, steel , the railways, the docks, road haulage, London’s buses and tubes. It created the National Health Service.
It established the National Insurance Act which created our Welfare State, unemployment benefits, sickness benefits, maternity benefits, widows benefits and old age pensions. But it also repealed, lock, stock and barrel, the anti-union 1927 Trades Disputes Act of the Tory Government, passed in revenge for the 1926 General Strike. A real Labour Government representing the cause of Labour over Capital.
Today we are promised a marginal reduction in the rate of VAT and University fees down from £9000 to £6000. Not exactly revolutionary stuff is it?
So, in the eloquent words of Professor Ewing, “let’s have it for strong trade unions and an active State policy on collective bargaining”. Labour should bring into primary law ILO Convention 87 and 98, given that after all, we were the first country in the world to ratify them. Now that would be a significant step for strong trade unions and an active State policy on collective bargaining. And Ed would win our enthusiastic support!
Barry Camfield, National Organiser
Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions
This article first appeared in Tribune on Friday 7th October 2011