Anyone under any illusion about government intentions towards working people should look at its Trade Union Bill…
The Trade Union Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech has resurrected every wish-list governments ever had of smashing the working class. It embodies every anti-worker measure they’ve previously tried to implement and every shred of vindictive class hatred they have had in their ranks reaching back to day one of modern capitalism.
The government invites workers to disarm, put away those relics from the 19th century, trust in the kindness and caring nature of the employer and voluntarily offer our throats to the butcher’s knife.
The detail of the Trade Union Bill is captured in the TUC and other trade union critiques. But how many really understand that the greatest challenge to the working class has been thrown down, requiring the greatest response in return? We must see it as an opportunity to galvanise, reassert and organise our class.
The announcement on 6 August, the day of the Tube strike in London, of plans to ban the deduction of subscriptions from source for public sector workers, and those providing public services, was a further provocation from these bully boys. No employer in the public or private sector is openly calling for such a measure.
‘It is arrogance for them to think they can airbrush us out of history.’
It is simple arrogance on the part of this government to think they can air-brush us out of history by legislative measures, both civil and criminal, to reduce every aspect of trade union organisation – finance, influence, thought, industrial action – or even its very presence. The language used, the images thrown up, are the same they used in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries when they attacked working class organisation.
The Labour Party will of course happily oppose, since they are not in power. When in power they also legislate against us.
Trade unions have always been defensive organisations of workers. They have never been revolutionary organisations threatening the existence of capitalism. Why then this latest assault on the trade unions, when successive governments have already imposed the most reactionary and draconian legislation anywhere in the developed world bar the USA? Because capitalism in Britain – despite all its anti-worker policies, its deindustrialisation, its importing of cheap labour to undermine wage rates – has signally failed to improve productivity in Britain, hence significantly failed to increase its profit returns.
Since 1976 the CPBML has described British capitalism as being in absolute decline, downward and irreversible. British capitalism believes it can only resurrect itself by further destroying all working class opposition, thought and organisation. Hence this latest assaults. The attack has the hallmarks of the Battle of the Somme or Verdun, do or die, bleed your opponent to death, an attack from desperation not strength.
In addition to the legislative attacks on the trade unions we should look at the ideological attacks and employer offensives in the workplace. While describing itself, ludicrously, as “the party of the working class”, the government is encouraging employers and would-be “independent workers” to
fragment, disrupt, break down, and casualise work relationships. Under the pretence of new technology and instant “app” servicing, capitalism is trying to pretend that a great personalised, consumer-driven product revolution is taking place.
Capitalism has always sought to revolutionise how products are produced. Latterly the drive for change has taken the form of short-term employment, personalised casualisation, the “gig” economy, the “Uber” system and so on to create greater so-called flexibility – where workers are chained in desperation to the next email, text, app.
With the fragmentation of work comes the ideological attempt to break up every aspect of collectivity involving more than one worker in any workplace. Some trade unionists from the 1990s through to today thought legislative measures would resolve issues such as inequality. But reality is breaking through. The employer is striking back.
Using zero hour contracts, flexibility over hours, home working, freedom when and how to work, “smart working”, the employers aim to get greater productivity for less wages, for less stability of employment, for less or no pension provision. Millions of workers in Britain have had full-time reduced to part-time or even “spare-time” employment and under-employment.
An analysis by Unison of a leading multinational in the world of outsourcing identified systematic and deliberate undermining of collective bargaining and agreements. There was a consistent “churn” of managers and workers to prevent stability in the workplace. All accompanied by unceasing change to hours worked, shift patterns and holiday entitlement, changing established routines, introducing casuals on the minimum wage and zero-hours contracts.
Tin-pot line managers generate a culture of hiring, firing, bullying, and harassing the workforce. Computerised pay slips can cheat workers of hours worked, penalties and fines are imposed, sickness benefits reduced, and two-, three-, or four-tiered workforces created.
The “Living Wage”? Of course not (see editorial, page 24) – instead a myriad of ways to cut the wage bill. Welcome to Britain moving backwards.
The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, based in Dublin, has published the first EU-wide survey of wage distribution across the EU. Its first conclusion is that until 2008 wages across the EU were equalising upwards. Second conclusion: EU wage rates after what it refers to as “The Great Depression of 2008” have led to more unequal distribution than ever. Third conclusion: the three EU countries with the greatest wage inequality are Latvia, Portugal and…Britain.
‘There have never been any halcyon days in British labour history.’
Britain leads the EU in wage inequality. Or to put it a better way, the class divide over wages in Britain is the most pronounced in Europe. We have 50 per cent of all the top earners in Europe, and they account for 1 per cent of earners in Britain. An important reason why we should leave the EU is the 23 failed capitalist nations which constitute it are united against our interests as the British working class.
The class divide in Britain is fundamental to why the government attacks workers’ wages and why it therefore attacks the trade unions – whose purpose in life is or should be to fight for wages rather than for the national minimum wage or Osborne’s new national living wage or any other variants.
Fight on our terms
Trade unions have to get off their knees, blow the dust out of their heads over wages and remember we dumped the slogan of “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work” in the 1880s. It’s not about fairness. We fight for wages so that we can live, not on their terms but ours. We organise through our unions to make inroads into the capitalists’ profits, hence why we are attacked.
True, some of the practices attacked in the Bill are themselves destructive of our labour movement. But they are our unions and we have to deal with any problems within them ourselves. We will clean out our own stables and must defend the right to do that. But we must do it.
The TUC in September has a hugely difficult challenge. All the old battlefields are calling: the fight for wages, the fight for the right to work, dignity at work, hours of work, the right to be a trade unionist, unifying those who work, re-establishing collectivity and class identity.
None of these issues is new. All have been there before Thatcher came to power in 1979 and continued with Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron. They are still here and as demanding as ever.
The TUC has called for a lobby of Parliament on 2 November. This will be more useful than the ultra-left annual parade to the Tory Conference in October which will be the usual ragtag march. But by itself such a lobby will pass unnoticed – when you go cap in hand to capital’s political representatives you always get short shrift.
There have never been any halcyon days in British industrial and labour history. We should have no illusion of workers and employers skipping hand in hand through the gates of the workplace as happy newly-weds with a mutual vision of the future.
It has always been today the war, tomorrow perhaps the armistice but always the war again the next day. That sums up the relationship between worker and employer in Britain for hundreds of years.
● Related article: What's in the bill?