It is perhaps not surprising that government ministers have shown little or no interest in marking the 80th anniversary of the General Strike, let alone this year's 100th anniversary of the Trades Disputes Act, which made it legal for trade unions to take strike action. In many ways, the trade unionists who won that victory in 1906, and those who walked out in 1926, enjoyed greater rights and freedoms than their counterparts in 2006. Today, not only do trade unionists risk losing their jobs if they take industrial action, but their union faces the sequestration of its assets and, possibly, total demise if associated with action in solidarity with others, which has been outlawed since the days of Thatcher.
These harsh industrial conditions were clearly exposed last summer, when a group of Asian women working for the airline catering company Gate Gourmet, many of whom were my constituents, were herded into a shed at Heathrow airport and told by megaphone that they were sacked. These women were the victims of the modern industrial process of outsourcing and contracting out of services to reduce costs and maximise profits, following a takeover by a venture capitalist company.
Despite being heavily unionised the Gate Gourmet workers were virtually defenceless against the ruthless power of a former employer whose sole interest was to offload a contract to cut costs and a new owner well versed in the technique of "sweating the assets" for short-term profit. The employer was only forced to negotiate a settlement when, in outrage, workers from across the airport operation threatened industrial action in solidarity with the Gate Gourmet workers, which would have brought Heathrow to a standstill at a peak period. It was a threat that put the whole future of the T&G at risk.
Trade union reps will tell you that the Gate Gourmet experience is replicated across every sector of industry, as contractualisation, outsourcing and privatisation gather pace. In smaller firms especially, in which more than six million of Britain's workforce are employed and which are excluded from the government's trade union recognition legislation, the result is low pay, long hours, bullying and unprecedented levels of work-related stress. With such weak trade union rights laws and a lack of effective sanctions against rogue bosses, employers can act with impunity. Meanwhile, employees increasingly question the need to join a trade union, if it has no power to protect them.
For two decades, trade unions and the Labour Party have campaigned for the abolition of the draconian anti-trade union legislation introduced under Thatcher. This campaign has consolidated into the development of a single, relatively modest piece of proposed legislation called the Trade Union Freedom Bill. An early day motion in parliament expressing support for this bill has secured the backing of the largest number of back-bench Labour MPs ever for this type off reform. The bill would go some way to remedy the lack of trade union rights in this country, in particular restoring the right to strike in support of others in certain situations - of vital importance in this age of globalisation.
So far, not a single cabinet minister has expressed support for the bill. Indeed, I was warned by one senior TUC official that it had no support anywhere in the government. This may be the case at present, but the real world is moving on. More and more people are questioning why, in the fifth-richest country in the world, they endure insecurity and stress at home and at work, and they are increasingly willing to stand up for their rights. The government could make up for a lot of lost ground by getting behind the Trade Union Freedom Bill.
John McDonnell MP is chair of the Labour Representation Committee and Socialist Campaign Group of MPs. For more on the bill, go to www.ier.org.uk/TUFB.htm
Action on the home front
A number of the images on these pages are held in the TUC Library Collections at London Metropolitan University. A new learning resource constructed by the Collections, linked to the award-winning website The Union Makes Us Strong at www.unionhistory.info, celebrates the part played by those who worked tirelessly for the war effort on the home front during the Second World War. In partnership with the TUC and the National Pensioners Convention, the project archives the experiences of working men and women as firefighters and rescue workers, health staff and factory workers, miners, dockers and people in many other roles during this tumultuous period. The project uncovers the role of the trade union movement in keeping the home front running throughout the war. The new website has two main focuses - an exhibition of hundreds of digitised images and documents from the library collection, plus oral testimony from dozens of interviews with those who worked on the home front. Audio clips from each of the interviews are accessible, along with fully searchable transcripts. The site also contains a set of teachers' notes, and is a terrific resource for class projects.
The Workers' War: Home Front Recalled website can be found at ww.unionhistory.info/workerswar