Unite leader asks: “When the law is misguided, when it oppresses the people and removes their freedoms, can we respect it?”
A new Tory government would destroy the remaining freedoms of UK workers, Unite has warned.
In a speech to the Industrial Law Society, the union’s general secretary Len McCluskey said decades of attacks on workers and their unions have allowed power and wealth to be accrued by a few like never before. But, he warned, the Tory party has not finished yet – further attacks are planned to silence opposition to attacks on jobs and public services.
Such are Unite’s concerns, the union’s executive is recommending to members that the words “so far as may be lawful” are removed from the rules governing the union’s actions in recognition that a Tory government will introduce laws to prevent working people mounting a decent defence against employer abuse.
In a far reaching speech covering the journey from the Margaret Thatcher’s assaults on unions to the present day, whereby a single judge can deny hundreds of workers the ability to take lawful industrial action mandated by legal ballots, Len McCluskey warned that the fundamental human right to strike is “hanging by a thread”.
Emphasising that Unite is committed to operating effectively within the law, he says that the time has come to ask “can unions stay within the law any longer?”
Delivering the Bill Wedderburn lecture, Len McCluskey said: “This proposed change in the constitution of the biggest union on these isles marks the sorry place we have reached in our national democracy.
“These words will go not because we are anarchists, not because we are suddenly planning a bank robbery – but because we have to ask ourselves the question, can we any longer make that commitment to, under any and all circumstances, stick within the law as it stands?
“Unite remains determined to operate ever more effectively within the law, even when that law is an ass and ill-serves our people. But restricting the right to strike, attacking the capacity for trade unions to organise and conduct our own business in line with our own rules, belong to last century’s consensus. They fail working people today.
“Other aspects of that ‘consensus’ – a deregulated financial sector, a flexible labour market, being intensely relaxed about the filthy rich – have been discredited since the global crash. Yet trade union law remains untouched and politically untouchable; the great unmentionable of British politics.
“The ugly reality is that widening inequality, wealth concentrated at the top, a shrinking percentage of GDP going into the pockets of workers, and governments unable or unwilling to confront the vested interests necessary to bring about change is the world in which trade unions now operate. It is not by chance that these trends have accelerated at the same time as the role and function of trade unions have been restricted and diminished.
“It is not trade unions who need a change in the law – society as a whole needs a change in trade union law, or little else can change for the better.
“Labour’s victory in 1997 was one of the happiest days of my life, but that first Labour government, with its huge Parliamentary majority, did nothing to alter the legal superstructure that allows the skewed accrual of wealth and power in our society. Tony Blair even boasted to business audiences that Britain’s labour laws were the most restrictive in Europe.
“It is no exaggeration to say that the right to strike in this – the first country of free trade unionism – was and is hanging by a thread. But should there be a Conservative majority in May, there will be a new attack on trade union rights and democracy.
“The bar for a strike ballot will be raised to a level which hardly any MPs would get over in their own constituencies, by a government which has refused our requests to use modern, more effective balloting methods.
“Agency labour scabs will be licensed to break strikes. Restrictions imposed on our campaigning role in the Lobbying Act will be followed by laws to make picketing nigh on impossible too.
“Further Tory attacks on unions will come because they can only get away with their desired assault on our national fabric if they neuter any potential opposition, reducing us to the role of concerned spectators while they tear to bits every advance working people have secured, every protection we have built up, over the years.
“People have intrinsic rights but sometimes these are violated even by democratically elected legislatures – the right of working people to combine, to organise, is one of those rights. So if partisan legislation is driven through parliament, designed to push the legitimate democratic work of trade unions outside of the law, then we in Unite will not go gently into the night. We will rage against the dying of the light.
“A union’s job is to fight for working people’s rights. If in the year we mark the anniversary of Magna Carta, the government wants to challenge fundamental rights of the citizen, then I believe they will be facing not just the trade union movement, but a huge section of our civil society too.
“When the law is misguided, when it oppresses the people and removes their freedoms, can we respect it? I am not really posing the question. I’m giving you the answer. It ain’t going to happen.”
Unite activists will decide on the change of wording to union’s rules at a conference later in the year.
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