Thursday, 21 October 2010

Why trade union rights matter

Tomorrow morning (Fri 22 Oct), John McDonnell will be moving his Lawful Industrial Action Bill, which would tackle the increasing practice by employers of using minor technical errors in the balloting process - which have no material effect on the outcome - to take unions to court in order to prevent them from taking industrial action.

It would mean the repeal of one of the most pernicious pieces of Thatcher's anti-union legislation, just one of many - but it would be a step forward. The Bill itself is sponsored by a dozen Labour MPs, and was unanimously backed at TUC Congress in September.

When we look across the Channel to France, the importance of a fair legislative framework for trade unions is immediate. France has only 8% union membership in its workforce, compared with around 24% here yet their workers and unions are able to take effective action to resist attacks on their living standards.

And it's not just France, in South Africa public sector workers have won a 7.5% pay rise after 3 weeks on strike, with an 800 rand housing allowance thrown in too.

Gone are the days, as many will have seen in Made in Dagenham, when workplace votes could initiate strike action. In fact, it's fair to say the Equal Pay Act would not exist if Thatcher's anti-union laws had been in place.

In the UK the effects of the anti-union laws are clear: the value of wages has declined from nearly 65% of GDP in the mid-1970s to 55% today. Over the same period, the rate of corporate profit has increased from 13% to 21%. A large part of the reason for the global economic crisis, argues Graham Turner in his book, is the global squeeze in wages which has sapped demand out of the economy.

Whether or not John's Bill passes the first hurdle tomorrow - it needs 100 Labour MPs to attend to make sure - UK unions are going to have fight vigorously and innovatively despite the anti-union shackles around them. It's essential they do - people will suffer immensely, and the poorest most, if these cuts go through.

John McDonnell will be presenting his Bill tomorrow in Parliament from 09:30 tomorrow (Fri 22 Oct). You can watch live on the BBC Parliament Channel.

Update, Fri 22 Oct, 2:30pm: Unfortunately only 87 Labour MPs could be bothered to attend the debate and so the Lawful Industrial Action Bill fell. Very disappointing, but well done to all those who lobbied their MPs - and to those MPs who did attend and support the Bill.

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