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  1. Election 2024
6 November 2015

Trade unions should not consider breaking the law

Bad laws demand a different government. To flirt with illegality is to accept that the next election is lost already. 

By John McTernan

There’s an agitprop play on in Peckham called United We Stand. It’s about the Shrewsbury Three – the building workers jailed in the aftermath of the 1972 national building strike. More than 40 years on this case is remembered by the public – if at all – because one of those jailed was a young Eric Tomlinson, known now as the actor Ricky Tomlinson famous for playing national treasure Jim Royle in The Royle Family

Within the labour movement there has been a dogged campaign over the last 40 years to have all the papers on the case published and the convicted men cleared retrospectively. A campaign that is backed by Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, who was there in Peckham for the first night. As was Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour Party. They were there in an official capacity. I was there too, not with them obviously, but Peckham is my manor. After the play finished both Tom and Len got to speak. Watson was polished and professional, backing the case for full disclosure of documents and tying it into his concerns about proposals by the government to restrict Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. McCluskey, in contrast, addressed the audience as if we were a mass meeting in a car park in the 1970s. Which was appropriate, as the politics he espoused was a return to the 70s.

McCluskey gave a rabble rousing defence of the Shrewsbury Three, which was fair enough given he supports their campaign. But although the case for clemency rests on a baroque and implausible conspiracy at whose heart are unnamed Tory backbenchers, Len reserved his venom for the real enemy – Labour governments. Roy Jenkins as home secretary didn’t release the by-then Shrewsbury Two. Presumably because he thought they’d had a fair trial – three picketers were acquired, after all. As for Tony Blair – he had betrayed the jailed building workers in some unspecified way. If only, McCluskey mused, Jeremy Corbyn had been leader when Labour were elected.

The most challenging part of McCluskey’s remarks, though, where when he got into the issue of the law. And specifically “bad laws”. Sometimes, Len said, you have to “step outside the law” to defeat a bad law. Even more pointedly he said that “some in our movement say law is sacrosanct”. He didn’t say that in an approving way, either. He then linked that to the Trade Union Bill – as nasty a piece of legislation as we have seen in the UK in a long time. And he raised the question of whether that bad law would have to be resisted by stepping outside the law. The obvious answer to that is no. We are not talking about the Jim Crow laws of the racist South or the pass laws of apartheid South Africa. Bad laws in the UK – like the ban on trade union membership at GCHQ or the homophobic Section 28 – are reversed by an incoming government. And the victory of that government is won by persuading the public of the basic unfairness of legislation – winning hearts and minds in a democracy.

In some part, this was grandstanding by McCluskey in front of an audience of Unite members. But, more importantly it was the zombie argument of the labour movement – that the failure of Brown and Blair to reverse Margaret Thatcher’s union legislation has been a betrayal of work. That, of course, is nonsense. But, by and large, Labour moderates and modernisers have let that argument go by default. It looks like we will need to make it again. 

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So, here are the facts. First, mass picketing was a form of mob violence and intimidation and it has no place in modern trade unionism. The Shrewsbury Three, for example, organised hundreds of workers from north Wales and Merseyside to descend on building sites on which non-union members were working to “persuade” them that they should join a strike they weren’t part of. That has been banned and it is – rightly – never coming back. Second, secret ballots for strike action and postal ballots for union elections are profoundly democratic. There is no going back on them either. Third, the truth that Thatcher exploited was that union members wanted changes that protected them from the militants. There is a big difference between workers’ rights and rights for unions.  

Workers need strong unions – all the research shows that on average unionised workplaces deliver wages 10 per cent higher than equivalent non-unionised ones. Business needs unions; as John Hannett has shown in retail, you can deliver growth in partnership with the company that can be shared with the workers. No one – not the country, the Labour Party or the unions – needs a return to the 70s. Bad laws demand a different government. Any flirting with illegality is worse than posturing, it is accepting that the next election is lost already. 

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