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October 2012 | 15.10.2012
An Outstanding Debate at TUC
The other motion that the POA put forward courted a lot of controversy on the run up to Congress and indeed whilst at Congress. The General Council (of which I am a member) was split right up until a general council meeting prior to the business of Congress on Monday 10 September 2012 when the General Council then determined support for the POA motion. In my view, the media circus that followed and the comments from all political parties bordered on the hysterical.
So what was the motion that so stirred up the TUC that several delegates from a variety of unions described as the best debate in 20 years at a Congress? Some described the debate as outstanding whether unions were in favour or against, and some reporters stated that the TUC were woken up and the Motion did have merit. Indeed, John Hendy QC and Professor Keith Ewing believed the motion had absolute merit.
Motion 5 read:
“Congress welcomes the Future that Works demonstration on 20 October 2012 and recognises this as being an effective platform and foundation to resist the damaging austerity measures that are damaging the very fabric of our society in Great Britain. Further, Congress recognises that after the demonstration there needs to be a strong voice from all TUC affiliated unions to protect public and private sector workers, the unemployed, our children, the elderly and all those in our society who are vulnerable. Congress accepts that the trade union movement must continue leading from the front against this uncaring government with a coalition of resistance taking co-ordinated action where possible with far reaching campaigns including the consideration and practicalities of a general strike.”
It would appear the consideration and practicalities of a general strike were the off ending words with some believing the trade union movement should never ever have that in their armoury to consider. I am pleased to say the motion was carried massively. However, refreshingly, there were unions who expressed dissent and got up to contribute to a really good debate. I applaud those unions exercising that democratic right. The day we stop debating at the TUC or indeed our own conference is the day we need to pack up. That in my view is what unionism is about, debating and having alternative views and coming to a position of policy. Indeed if the issue had gone to a card vote I believe the motion would have been supported by about five million votes plus to around 800,000 against.
The motion is now history but policy of the TUC so that this issue can be considered and the practicalities looked at over the coming years. I hope we never have to use it but this Coalition Government needs to be forced to change course before our country is destroyed by austerity measures that clearly are not working.
There is an alternative to these cuts and they know it yet they are clearly driving forward damaging every public service in its path and taking us into a double dip recession. Of course any strike - leaving aside a general strike - is a last resort and the POA motion had a lot more substance than just consideration of the practicalities of a general strike. It calls on the trade union movement to continue to lead from the front on its campaigns and coordinated action against austerity measures. There is nothing to fear for the trade union movement in looking at the practicalities of a general strike and indeed if examination of what John Hendy QC and Professor Keith Ewing are arguing then it may well be legal to have a political protest called by the TUC.
The right to strike
Hendy and Ewing co-authored a booklet entitled “Days of Action” in which they detail the legal argument behind the right of trade unions to hold a general strike. They argue that, unlike our counterparts in other European member states, British trade unions have so far avoided the general strike in response to government austerity measures, preferring large scale demonstrations that have succeeded in bringing hundreds of thousands of workers onto the streets in protest.
These have taken place at the weekend, minimising disruption to the economy and public services. But what if trade unions decide to step up a gear? One of the practicalities to which the POA resolution refers will be the tight legal restrictions on the right to strike that operate in this country. Even when British law was at its most liberal in terms of the right to strike, there were always question marks about the use of the strike as a weapon of political protest.
In 1980 when the TUC organised a day of action against the then Tory Government’s Employment Bill, a number of newspaper proprietors were able to rush off to the courts to secure an injunction to have the action stopped. It is unnecessary to dwell on the irony of employers whose business is based on the right to freedom of expression denying the same right to the workers they employ.
In those days, industrial action to protest against government policy was unlawful because then, as now, strikes could only take place in furtherance of a “trade dispute”. This is to say a dispute between workers and employers over workplace matters, rather than a dispute between workers and government over government policy. The definition of a trade dispute is now even narrower than it was then. It might be thought that as a result, the law represents an insuperable practical hurdle to the type of action contained within the POA motion but John Hendy QC believes the position is changing.
The United Kingdom is a party to an International treaty on freedom of association, referred to sometimes as ILO Convention 87. This treaty has been said by both the judicial and non-judicial bodies responsible for its supervision to include the right to strike, including the right to strike in protest at policies of government which damage the social and economic interests of workers.
In a nutshell there will be practicalities to be addressed if British workers are to follow the recent example of our counterparts in Greece, Spain and Portugal. Hendy QC concludes by stating that trade unions ought not to be intimidated by the fear of legal action, given the direction of travel from ILO Convention 87, to the ECHR, TO THE Human Rights Act 1998.
The POA NEC believes it was absolutely correct to take such a resolution to the Congress in Brighton if nothing else to stimulate debate. It has been accepted as policy and now we need to consider it as a last resort whilst at the same time resisting the damaging austerity measures that is touching all POA members and their families irrespective of where they work.
Visits to establishments
As General Secretary I believe it is vital for me to attend branches throughout the country during my five year term of office in order to listen at grass roots level our members. Since taking up post over two years ago, I have managed to visit in excess of fifty branches and they are listed below. Over the next few years I aim to visit the rest and I am on target to achieve that aim.