Pressing for union rights

EIGHTY trade unionists from all over the country gathered in London on February 1 for a conference organised by NUJ General Secretary John Foster on behalf of the Institute of Employment Rights and the Press for Union Rights Campaign.

The meeting, called "Employment Rights: The Next Step Forward" was convened to discuss proposals put forward by the Campaign aimed at influencing Labour Party policy through its new consultation procedures, leading up to a "Policy Forum".

Tony Dubbins, General Secretary of the GPMU, said the idea is for the Campaign to use the consultation process to affect the next Labour election manifesto, and thence to create the possibility of extending workers' rights in the next Parliament. "It is no use complaining that we haven't got what we want if we do not use the channels that are open to us first," he said.

Tony's theme was followed by all the other speakers -- who included Labour Party Treasurer Margaret Prosser; law professor Keith Ewing of King's College, London; TUC President Rita Donaghy; and John Hendy QC, a member of the Institute of Employment Rights' board.

All the speakers conceded that the present Government has achieved a great deal in a short time with its legislation bringing in the minimum wage, adopting the Working Time Directive and Fairness at Work. But, equally, all of them insisted that there remained much to be done.

Margaret Prosser and Rita Donaghy highlighted the inequality that still exists between men's and women's pay. The gap is closing so slowly, said Rita, "that we will only get parity in April 2057. I for one am too impatient to wait that long."

John Hendy stressed the way in which Britain, after 18 years of Tory anti-union legislation, was in breach of the International Labour Organization conventions, article 6.4 of the EU Charter on the rights of Workers and the UN Convention on Social and Cultural Rights. He interpreted all of these as saying that workers should have the right to strike and to carry out action in solidarity. The right to strike is heavily circumscribed in Britain, and "secondary action" is currently illegal.

A number of participants expressed scepticism about trying to alter this state of affairs through the Labour Party policy forums. Some clearly distrust the New Labour leadership: Tony Blair and Jack Straw were mentioned in contributions in less-than-adulatory tones.

Such dissent left Tony Dubbins shaking his head. A substantial part of the audience, however, still clung to the Old Labour notion that union rights would still perhaps have to be won where they were won in the first place, through action in the workplace and on the shop floor.

  • Professor Ewing's Employment Rights: Issues for Debate is available from the Institute for Employment Rights, 177 Abbeville Road, London SW4 9RL. and www.ier.org.uk

Mar/Apr 2000
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