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Trade unions at the 11th hour

How to restore the right to strike and to bargain collectively in the face of a continuing European-wide legal assault is the central issue facing the trade union movement and it is a challenge that poses historic political issues too.

The shocking reality facing workers who assert their rights emerged at a conference called by the Institute of Employment Rights (IER) over the weekend. At the heart of the matter are a series of judgements by the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The ECJ was dubbed “the new spectre haunting Europe” at the event attended by over 100 trade unionists at the Trade Union Congress headquarters.

Carolyn Jones, Keith Ewing and John Hendy of the Institute cited several key recent judgements by the court:

IER president Ewing said that these cases “struck at the heart of trade union activities”. The ECJ was using European Union treaties to uphold the right of businesses to “freedom of establishment” over the right of trade unions to pursue industrial action.

In a recent court action against BA, the British Airline Pilots Association were legally stymied, even though they had voted overwhelmingly (86%) for strike action when BA’s Open Skies service threatened their pay and conditions.

The issues which sparked the Lindsey oil refineries strikes earlier this year revealed the impact of the Laval case because it allowed employers to undercut local pay and conditions agreements. These and other issues are explained in detail in the IER’s new book.

Ewing told the conference that the latest drastic legal restrictions on the capacity of a trade union to take action on behalf of its members had dragged trade union rights a century back to the period of the notorious Taff Vale dispute of 1901. Then, a court ruling against the rail workers made their union liable for losses incurred during a strike.

Both Ewing and Hendy raised the historic issues involved in the legal fetters placed on collective organisation. Today’s struggles had “echoes” of the period when the unions formed their own political party, the Labour Party, in order to change the law, they noted.

Ewing proposed that the unions should exploit the fact that the ECJ’s decisions were in breach of International Labour Organisation rules and the European Convention of Human Rights which guarantees the freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike. “If they cannot persuade the government to protect our fundamental freedoms or collective agreements, then trade unions should use their political funds to pay for litigation,” he said.

But, as one dissident voice at the conference, a member of the University and College Union noted, to be surprised that the ECJ should rule in favour of employers is disingenuous. “The EU was always about free markets,” she said. New Labour’s “trade liberalisation” project has committed Britain to all international trade agreements which protect global corporations and employers against workers.

Yet since 1997 New Labour has received £100 million from the trade unions despite the fact that it has kept all the Tory anti-union laws on the statute books and further tightened the shackles.

The trade unions are at the 11th hour when it comes to breaking with New Labour and campaign for a political movement based on securing and developing fundamental democratic and social rights in a struggle against the nascent European capitalist state and the corporations it protects. Without such a perspective, the trade union movement is in serious danger of losing its way completely.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
30 November 2009

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