Issue 208 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Election special: Time for the union dues

Dave Beecham

During the election, the Labour leaders did everything possible not just to distance themselves from the unions, but to rubbish them. As one of Blair's team told the Guardian, 'Tony, in the first couple of days of the campaign, let people know exactly where we stood on the unions. A Scargill heckler helped.'

The response from the union officials was to keep quiet. The TUC wants to continue this. The aim is to conduct smooth diplomacy behind the scenes to ingratiate the trade union leader with Labour and the employers. The new TUC policy document, Partnership for Progress, is all about presenting the unions as a modernising force, supporting the aims of big business, such as European Monetary Union, helping to provide a trained and flexible workforce, guaranteeing stable industrial relations. Discreetly it suggests that in return for this, the TUC might be allowed a seat at the top table.

This is a pathetic apology for a trade union strategy. When it comes to the practical issues the TUC has almost nothing to say. It has even dropped its propaganda campaign for employee rights on the grounds that it might embarrass the Labour party.

At present, if you are sacked or made redundant you have no right to claim compensation with less than two years' service. Millions of people face this insecurity where, if they speak out of turn or their face doesn't fit, they can be dismissed without a thought and then face loss of benefit at the Job Centre.

Of course Labour argues that this is iniquitous, but what is it prepared to do? Once it was committed to 'employment rights from day one'. That is not an outrageous revolutionary demand. It simply means that anyone in the job has the right to be treated fairly.

Now Labour has said it is not so sure what to do. Originally it said it would wait for a House of Lords ruling. Now it proposes to wait until the European Court decides, perhaps in a year's time, whether the existing law is right. Then something might happen!

Yet it is open to Labour simply to prepare a Statutory Instrument amending the existing law and pushing it through parliament. This could be done within a month, yet Labour refuses to do it. Unbelievably, its main excuse is that if it changed the law now the industrial tribunals would be swamped with claims!

What about low pay? Sure, Labour is committed to the minimum wage. But what's the target? Why won't it say? On the generally accepted formula for the minimum wage, the rate, if it was fixed now, ought to be 4.52 an hour. Incredibly, Labour is talking about a rate of 3 or 3.25 an hour and that's not now, but in a year's time, when the legislation has gone through parliament. Yet back in 1993, when the Tories abolished the Wages Councils, the legal minimum rate for shop workers was already fixed at 2.98 an hour. Does Labour really intend to introduce a policy that gives workers the legal right to a 2p increase in five years?

The arguments inside the unions are crucial and immediate. The first test of the new mood will take place over the coming days and weeks as the different trade union conferences meet. The key conferences in May include the bank workers (BIFU), civil servants (CPSA) and communications workers (CWU). At the start of June both the GMB and UNISON meet, followed by the Telecom Executives and MSF.

At each of these conferences, there will be a hopeful, perhaps euphoric, majority and a determined and bitter minority. The task is to connect our ideas with both. People have rejected the Tories precisely because they reject a society based on arrogance and greed, insecurity and poverty. Finally, they saw through the Tory mirage of prosperity. The Labour leadership claimed that 'things can only get better'. All right: let's put them to the test.

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