Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of PCS began by asking
“what are we going to do if the Bill passes? There has never been a more
important time to strike.
There are real terms cuts in pay and benefits. People will
be driven into poverty even though they’re in work. The most effective way to
stop austerity is to all take strike action together.
If we just have fine speeches and two months of campaigning,
the Tories will get their Bill. If we
mobilise the six and a half million union members, we can stop them. We need to
mobilise our members now.
When it comes to attacking the poor or trade unions, the
Tories’ twelve seat majority will be solid.
By seeking to amend the Bill, we can draw out the Tories’
hypocrisy. We should put in amendments on workplace balloting.
Wouldn’t it be a lot easier to do all of this if we had
Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader?
We need to prepare for the worst case scenario. We’ve been here
before. We need to understand what we can concentrate on. The thresholds are
undemocratic but it seems to me if we can organise, we can overcome these
thresholds. If we do beat the thresholds then the really sinister stuff come
I say tonight: if this law comes in and the first strike
takes place, we should commit ourselves to having thousands of people on the
picket line. We should say we’re not letting people in to undermine this
If we can’t stop this Bill, the campaign isn’t over.”
John Hendy QC, standing counsel for a number of trade unions
and a key figure in the IER spoke next. “The Bill is not going to be defeated
by lawyers. The other side of the coin is that the Bill can only be defeated by
We defeated the Combination Act in 1824. It was the trade
unions who mobilised against the Act of 1871. It was the trade unions who
founded the Labour Party to end the passing of the Trades Disputes Act in 1901.
It was the trade unions who put Atlee into power to ensure the reversal of the
1927 Trade Union Act.
In 1971, the Tories passed the Industrial Relations Act. The
trade union movement killed this Act. It became unworkable.
Thatcher’s seven Acts to denude the trade unions of rights –
Acts that were not reversed under thirteen years of Labour government – are
still in place. We cannot make that same mistake again.
We haven’t seen this Act in its final form. All we have is
the Bill. You can be sure that further amendments will be added.
We have set out areas where the Bill breaks international
law. The proposed changes are completely disproportionate. There is no problem
with strikes in British industrial relations, apart from there not being enough
The cumulative effect of the measures in the Bill makes it
disproportionate and it is quite clear that this is part of a wider policy to
exclude trade unions from the economic, political and industrial life of this
The context of
Len McCluskey, Unite General Secretary, opened his comments
as follows: “Since the defeat on May 7th there have been a series of
marches and demonstrations that have blown my mind. Tens of thousands of young
people are involved.
The Trade Union Bill needs to be seen in the context of
The right wing media and the Tories constantly tell us that
trade unions are irrelevant. If that’s the case, why attack us? Of course we’re
not irrelevant. Organised labour is the only force that can stop them.
My union has taken out a requirement from our rule book for
us to act within the law. Not because we’ve become anarchists but because we’ve
asked ourselves is it feasible to defend ourselves within the law.
Coming to meetings like this is one thing. Going out and
convincing our members is another.
We face a class war and a gauntlet has been thrown down by
this government. The next six to twelve months are going to be critical. We
will use every means to resist this Bill.
The likelihood is that this Bill will be passed. Then the
question is, what do we do about it? We have to raise the consciousness amongst
our members and the public.
We are not the enemy within, we create the wealth in this
nation and we have to stand and fight.
The TUC has got a difficult job. Some unions would never
contemplate breaking the law. But a time has come when we have to protect
We need to be prepared to defy the law in order to protect
our human rights.”
John McDonnell MP – Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership election
agent – began with this pledge: “If Jeremy is elected, when we go back into
Parliament there will be total opposition to this Bill. If it goes through,
when we win the next election we will repeal this legislation. We will
introduce a Trade Union Freedom Bill to scrap the Thatcher laws. We will give
trade unionists back their basic human rights and civil liberties.
Don’t think what’s been published so far is as far as it
goes. The Tory back benches are drafting amendments as we speak. The Tories are
coming for us because they want to destroy the welfare state. They see the next
five years as the best opportunity they have for destroying the trade union
We need to use every mechanism we can to defeat this Bill.
We can defeat this Bill but if it goes through and a single trade unionist is
arrested then for the first time in many years Labour MPs will be out on the
streets, on the pickets.
When the law is unjust, we have to campaign against it. If
that takes us outside of the law then so be it.”
Dave Ward, recently elected General Secretary of the CWU,
started by asking us to “think about the consequences of the Bill”.
“It must be seen in the context of the balance of forces in
the world of work and society in general. When I started work as a telegram boy
in 1976 I had job security. I lived in Lambeth and was able to get a council
flat. When I had children, I had something.
When I think about these things and look at the picture now,
these weren’t big things, they were taken for granted. These things were taken
away from us because we couldn’t coordinate that trade unions. It’s all gone.
The world of work isn’t just full of zero-hour contracts but
short-term, self-employed work. Contracts without holiday pay or sick pick. Now
they want to attack us as if we’re out of control. The criminals here are the
people who have ripped away our rights. Their time must now come.
Our struggle needs to go on beyond what’s already been
discussed. I propose that the trade union movement finds a common cause to
fundamentally shift the balance of forces; that we all sign up to the same
collective bargaining agenda; that we think about a strategy to mobilise all of
The trade union movement is about struggle but we need to
fight for positive things.”
As an example, Dave described the CWU’s ‘People’s Post’ campaign
to ensure that no matter who owns Royal Mail that a service is in place to meet
the needs of users.
Dave Green, National Officer of the FBU began by pointing
out that the “FBU gets a lot of attention in the Bill. Not by name but by
insinuation.” A significant section of the Bill deals with ‘intimidation’ and
Dave comprehensively dismissed the case studies cited in the Bill, suggesting
that large parts of the examples deployed to justify criminalising
‘intimidation’ were fabricated.
Keith Ewing from the IER closed the rally: “We’ve been here
before. In my lifetime this is the fourth attack on trade union freedom and the
fourth attack on the consensus reached in the post war period.
The first attack came from Labour in 1969. That was
defeated. In Place of Strife didn’t make it into law.
The Industrial Relations Act in 1971. The Tories won the
1970 election and introduced a wide-ranging attack on secondary and unofficial
action. Within a year, the Tories had given up as a result of trade union
The attack of the Thatcher era was long, sustained and
bruising. It lasted from 1980 to 1993 and beyond. We weren’t so smart then. We
walked into traps, injunctions and sequestrations. We’ve got to learn the
lessons from these mistakes and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
What are the lessons?
Unity – in 1969 when we took on Wilson and beat him there
was unity between the industrial and political wings of the labour movement.
What defeated the Industrial Relations Act? Unity, yes. But
leadership from the TUC working with the rank and file. Together, they
If we learn these lessons then we can win this argument. We
have a challenge. Are we going to allow Cameron to be Heath or Thatcher?
In my view, there are three factors playing in our
The economic debate: They want to impose a 1% limit on pay
rises. The Bank of England says that inflation is about to rise. This will
The political scene: Scotland is a very different place
today. The Tories have one MP, 10% of the vote and no mandate. They attempt to
rule Scotland as a colonial authority. Scotland is a tinderbox. The Trade Union
Bill could be for Cameron what the Poll Tax was for Thatcher. Scotland is a
real problem for the Tories.
The law: We live in a difficult legal culture with an
informed view of International Labour conventions and human rights. There are
features of the Bill that are very vulnerable to legal challenge.”
A Direct and blatant
Writing of the Trade
Union Act of 1984 Ken Coates and Tony Topham labelled it the “most direct
and blatant assault on trade union powers in British history”5. The contributors to the Kill the
Bill rally – and the contents of the Trade Union Bill 2015, itself – spelled
out the extent to which the same can be said now. The similarities between the
1984 Act and the 2015 Bill extend beyond their respective contents and
intentions. Both were introduced in the aftermath of electoral defeats for
Labour; at times of deep structural ‘reform’ at the societal and economic
levels and when the labour movement – organisationally and in the domain of
ideas – was and is not at its strongest.
In broad terms, those who addressed the rally – from the
rostrum and from the floor – were united in calling for the labour movement to
throw everything it has into the campaign to stop the Bill. Importantly, the
rally was called by a variety of organisations and campaigns within the
movement and benefited from hearing a wide range of views on tactical
questions. This level of unity must be maintained, and for very good reason.
As Keith Ewing and others pointed out, unity between the
industrial and political wings of the movement resulted in the squashing of In Place of Strife and its absence in
1984 resulted in defeat.
All four candidates for the Labour Leadership election have
made their opposition to the Bill clear and whoever wins, the trade unions will
have to work with the new leader and the wider Parliamentary Labour Party.
However, sections of the PLP will be initially more energetic on this question
than others and given the urgency mandated by the governments timescale for
implementation, it is right that the trade union movement works with these MPs
immediately to build the momentum of the campaign.
To complement coordination between trade union leaders and
actively supportive MPs, local and regional trade union and Labour Party
organisations should be encouraged to consult, question and lobby PLP members
to ensure political engagement across the Opposition benches.
Again on the local and regional front, trade unions and
campaign groups should take steps to form campaigns and committees against the
Bill. Paul Mackney, former General Secretary of NATFHE and now a leading
campaigner in the Greece Solidarity Campaign, spoke from the floor of the rally
to remind us of the call for ‘Councils of Action’ that emerged from an
Institute for Workers’ Control conference held when the Industrial Relations
Bill was first proposed in 1970. Regional TUCs, trade councils, union branches
and campaigns like local People’s Assembly groups should be involved in such
Efforts at united coordination at the national and local
level that combines all those with the strategic aim of defeating the Bill
through mobilisation of the entire labour movement – regardless of tactical
differences – is not only a necessary step in the campaign against the Bill but
would mark a major forward step for the movement as a whole. Such an
achievement, spurred on by what is in effect an emergency situation, would
enable united approaches to a whole series of basic questions faced by the
labour movement ranging from the welfare state, unemployment, privatisation and
4. All quotations from contemporaneous notes made by the
writer at the rally
5. Coates, Ken and Topham, Tony (1986), Trade Unions and Politics, Blackwell, pp. 107-108