by Caroline Colebrook
“WE SHOULD be upbeat tonight, we are going to get a chance to elect a new leader for the Labour Party,” RMT general secretary Bob Crow told a packed meeting in a House of Commons committee room last Thursday.
Over 100 supporters of John McDonnell’s bid to wrest the party leadership away from the treacherous New Labour clique had come to a meeting to back the Trade Union Rights and Freedoms Bill, to be presented by McDonnell the next day in the House of Commons.
Speakers included veteran campaigner Tony Benn, TGWU general secretary Tony Woodley, FBU general secretary Matt Wrack, CWU general secretary Billy Hayes, NUT general secretary Christine Blowers, Roger Klein speaking for the University College Union, Katy Clark, MP for North Ayrshire and Arran, Bob Crow and of course John McDonnell MP.
The meeting was chaired by trade union lawyer John Hendy, who had helped to draft the eight-page Bill.
All the speakers pointed out that the Bill was a very modest demand. It did not give the same trade union rights as did the Trade Disputes Act of 1906, introduced in the Commons by the 26 MPs of the then newly formed Parliamentary Labour Party and supported by the Liberals.
It did not give the trade union rights enshrined in international human rights legislation, to which Britain is a signatory. But it did go a little way to restore some of the union rights taken away under the Thatcher government of the 1980s.
But in spite of the Bill’s moderation, the Blair government is opposing it.
Tony Benn pointed out the essential role the trade unions had played in creating the Labour Party and called on them to back the Bill. “Trade unions must get behind it, no one else will!” he said.
Tony Woodley gave strong examples of the Gate Gourmet and Friction Dynamix disputes, where the current trade union laws had tied his union’s hands and allowed bosses to treat workers “worse than animals”. fight
He added: “If we fight we may not win but if we don’t fight we’ll surely lose.”
Katy Clark outlined some of the stratagems that the Labour whips would be using to “talk the Bill out” and why the MPs behind the Bill needed active support from outside Parliament to put pressure on their MPs simply to get it debated.
Bob Crow gave a clear and graphic description of the irreconcilable differences of interests between bosses and workers, “It’s capital versus labour; profits come at the expense of wages and wages come at the expense of profits.”
He pointed out that the right to secondary action was needed so that other unions could support the nurses’ pay claims and the Government would not get away with offering them below-inflation rises.
“Where are the TUC tonight?” he demanded, “This is a Trade Union Freedom Bill for goodness sake!”
He also pointed out: “We won’t get trade union rights unless we create the conditions outside this House.”
Matt Wrack began: “They keep saying don’t go back to the 1970s; well, apart from some serious fashion disasters, the 70s weren’t so bad.” imposing
He pointed out that no workers want to strike and his union had gone 24 years without striking and then in the last two or three years there have been endless disputes. “It’s not because we’ve changed but because they’re imposing changes on us. They’re seeking a strike-breaking charter and they’re out to break the union.”
He told the meeting of secret negotiations for contracts with a private European fire company to provide cover in time of civil contingencies – and these included Labour controlled local fire authorities.
Both the RMT and FBU are currently disaffiliated from the Labour Party, but both said it was “a debate under review”. They both backed the labour movement firmly but their memberships had revolted at paying dues to New Labour while it was attacking them and slandering them specifically during trades disputes.
John McDonnell then explained the procedures for getting a private members Bill debated, saying it was unlikely to get a reading the next day but that he would keep on getting it rescheduled until it was debated. And that would depend of the level of support and pressure coming from outside the House: “If you want our support, we want your support,” he told the union activists present.
On Friday, as expected, the Bill did not get debated. And another Bill, which aimed to extend labour protection laws to migrant, temporary and agency workers, was blocked by Employment Relations Minister Jim Fitzpatrick.
That Bill did get a little debate but Paul Farrelly MP, who introduced it with the backing of 115 Labour MPs, was still talking when time ran out. Fitzpatrick said he would consult with interested parties but he could not give a date for any future legislation.
McDonnell said this was the sort of thing that made him ashamed to be a Labour MP.
“Deliberately preventing MPs from even having the opportunity to properly debate Bills that extend the rights of working people in this country is an absolute disgrace and brings the whole of Parliament into disrepute,” he said.
* Manchester workers at Fujitsu, an IT services company, last Wednesday 7th March took their dispute to Parliament to defend their redundancy rights, union recognition and fight for better pay.
Members of the general union Amicus made representations to local MPs in Westminster and handed in a petition signed by 500 people to the Employment Relations Minister, Jim Fitzpatrick at the Department of Trade and Industry.
The Manchester members resumed industrial action on the same day and further strike action, scheduled from Monday 12th March until Wednesday 14th March.