Now is the time to fight for trade union freedom

It seems like the P&O scandal was a line in the sand and since then the unions have been taking no steps back – but even with the huge public support for RMT’s actions, will the Tories legislate us into defeat, asks KEN LIVINGSTONE

AS we enter July, trade unionists in London and dockers from across the country held a major commemorative rally yesterday to mark the 50th anniversary of the Pentonville Five.

The Five were dockers’ shop stewards jailed for breaching the anti-union laws introduced by the Conservative government of Ted Heath under the Industrial Relations Act.

They were released from jail in a matter of days as the TUC began to organise for a general strike after mass mobilisation of workers by the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions.

This mass action, set in the pre neoliberal era, was may be the last time the labour movement took on the forces of the state and comprehensively won.

An essential feature of neoliberalism, introduced with a vengeance by the incoming Tory government in 1979, has been the attempted legal shackling of trade unions so that their ideological programme — privatisation, deregulation, deindustrialisation — could more easily be enacted.

We may also add that from the early 1980s the repressive forces of the state were significantly empowered to strong-arm the labour movement into submission.

But will 2022 prove to be the year that people power starts to pull down the neoliberal edifice?

Earlier this year, P&O Ferries announced the sacking of 800 seafarers, members of RMT and Nautilus International, and their replacement with workers on much lower wages supplied by a crewing agency based in Malta.

Rather than being able to proceed with business as usual, there was huge public outcry about P&O Ferries’ actions but more importantly a public outcry that the state of labour law in Britain allowed the company to behave in this way.

CEO Peter Hebblethwaite was widely reviled and his appearances in front of parliamentary committees in Westminster and Edinburgh were master classes in being tone deaf to public opinion while brazenly asserting that DP World-owned P&O Ferries knew that the law on collective consultation was being broken.

The Tory Transport Secretary Grant Shapps responded to the P&O Ferries outrage with a proposed change in the law that would require all vessels arriving at British ports to be paying crew at least the national minimum wage.

Another tin ear. The public outrage generated by the actions of P&O Ferries was essentially about fire and rehire/replace as an employers’ practice.

In any event, Shapps proposed no real enforcement mechanism to his minimum wage plan, leaving it to port authorities to make the necessary checks. But many ports in Britain, especially the so-called free ports, are owned by or have a significant holding by DP World, the owners of P&O Ferries!

This pathetic and insubstantial response was from a government that only weeks previously had talked out MP Barry Gardiner’s private member’s Bill that would have outlawed fire and rehire.

Fast forward to the current dispute on the railways involving RMT, which has jumped through all the legal hoops put in place by earlier Conservative governments.

The union is operating a lawful dispute with, as we saw last weekend, a significant degree of public support.

Why is the public supporting the railway workers? Because everyone not only knows about but is actually experiencing the cost-of-living crisis.

The public, under cost-of-living pressure, currently supports the workers, so we can expect a massive propaganda onslaught against the unions and especially union leaders in the coming days.

Inflation on the RPI index has just topped 11 per cent, but workers’ wages are lucky to have increased by a quarter of that figure.

The share of national income going to wages and salaries has been in long-term decline throughout the neoliberal era as the elite claw back that which was taken from them in the years of social democratic advance after WWII.

In the face of public support for the vanguard role of the railway workers in fighting the cost-of-living crisis, how does the government respond?

Unbelievably, with proposals for more anti-union laws. The government is proposing firstly, that where an employer is confronted by striking workers it would be lawful, it is currently unlawful, for that employer to use agency labour to break that strike. Even the agency employers’ association does not want this change to the law.

Secondly, in a dispute in what the government deems to be an essential service, currently limited to railways, there will be a legal requirement placed on the union concerned to participate in a minimum service requirement. In other words, the union will be legally obliged to organise the undermining of its own strike.

Thirdly, the government is proposing to increase the statutory damages a large union could be made to pay an employer for not repudiating members’ wildcat action from £250,000 to £1,000,000.

The government is proposing to do this because it’s the way that Conservatives instinctively react to pressure from organised labour — they further tighten the legal screw.

Unfortunately, it seems that the Labour Party leadership is to turn its back on the trade union movement in this moment of resurgent militancy.

Keir Starmer’s injunction to his front bench to stay away from RMT picket lines and MP David Lammy’s media circus last Sunday, where he explicitly disowned industrial action yet to happen by British Airways staff, are not good pointers for the future.

The Campaign for Trade Union Freedom will be holding fringe meetings on Friday evening at both the Durham Miners’ Gala and Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival to discuss and mobilise responses to this renewed legal attack on our unions.

We may be entering a new phase of legal repression but at the same time there is a reinvigorated sense of resistance to Tory anti-union, anti-worker laws and for determined action on the cost-of-living crisis.

Visit the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom at or follow on Twitter @UnionFreedom.