Straws in the wind?
At the Labour Conference fringe in Brighton, there was a distinct change of mood. It wasn’t just Ed Miliband’s one hour ‘tour de force’ but also the warm reception given to traditional union figures such as Len McCluskey and Paul Kenny. So, the fringe called by the Institute of Employment Rights and others on Monday in the Grand at lunchtime on the topic,’Trade Unions:New rights; new freedoms’ , was packed with a star-studded cast of speakers, led by Unite’s Lennie.
This was also the launch of a ‘Manifesto for Collective Bargaining’ by the Institute and the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom of the Morning Star orientation. An accompanying booklet by the Institute of Employment Right’s veteran lawyer duo, Keith Ewing and John Hendy QC, made the case for the new ‘Manifesto’. It called on a future Labour government to reestablish a Ministry of Labour and an ACAS with teeth to promote sectoral collective bargaining. Employers would be obliged to participate as a precondition for securing public contracts. The resulting sectoral agreements would be legally binding and their terms part of each workers’ terms and conditions. It would be implemented gradually and flexibly and in industries without the infrastructure to support collective bargaining, Wage Councils would be encouraged.Their ‘Manifesto’ also calls for a much needed strengthening of the current statutory recognition procedures, lowering the required threshold to 10% membership and also of the right of individual workers to be accompanied by a union official.
All good moderate stuff (amazingly so from that camp!). Question is, will ‘Red Ed’ be prepared to take it onto Labour’s Manifesto? Judging by the revealing profile of his Policy Coordinator, Jon Cruddas MP (Tony Blair’s former union liaison man), in the Conference issue of ‘The House Magazine‘, nothing could be further from their minds. But you never know how things develop, particularly in the consultations due to commence over Lord Ray Collins’ final report, on how they plan to ‘reform’ the Labour-union link! Len McCluskey’s recent warm praise for Ed’s speech at the Jimmy Reid Memorial lecture in Glasgow and assurance of adequate UNITE funding for the general election in 2015, that we are talking compromise?
Which brings me back to the actual coalition government. We had the Conservative ‘envoy to the trade unions’, Lord Balfe, at the Unions 21 meeting, though their conference clearly wanted them to go even further with more restrictions on union industrial actions – their subsequent announcement of an ‘Inquiry’ into practices during the Grangemouth oil refinery dispute with Unite, shows their current form. By contrast, Balfe was quite emollient. He even praised three significant union-inspired gains of the previous Labour governments: the statutory Minimum Wage and Living Wage policy, the gains on gender equality and the Employment Tribunals/individual rights legislation. He indicated that they would want to keep ‘check-off’ for union subscriptions in the public sector, despite Tory Party pressures to ban it. It is not clear whether PM Cameron listens to his envoy, but the fact that he has now been elevated to the Lords, suggests that they are at least thinking about unions again not as ‘the Enemy Within’ . Perhaps we need an Envoy to the Coalition government, as the Lib Dem leaders did not seem too happy about this further lurch against union actions?
Equally significantly, perhaps, was the Labour Leader’s post-Conference highly effective stand up to The Mail, over their calumny of his Marxist dad’s patriotism. This outcome suggests to me that we are beginning to move beyond the hegemony exercised by Thatcher and the right-wing media up to recently. This could be most important for a bolder shaping of future Labour policy towards unions as collective bodies with legitimate rights.
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