Trade Union Pride rally in Cardiff, 5.3.16, photo Dave Reid

Trade Union Pride rally in Cardiff, 5.3.16, photo Dave Reid   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Scott Jones interviewed John McInally, PCS national vice-president (personal capacity)

A change has been made to the government’s Trade Union Bill. The government is not now going to include in the bill the removal of check-off* in the public sector. This is a big concession and shouldn’t be treated lightly. It would have had a deeply damaging effect if implemented.

But we need an honest assessment of how the concession came about and how the TUC is fighting the Trade Union Bill.

It seems likely that in effect a deal was done between the Tories and some of the trade union leaders regarding the EU referendum. The Financial Times reported last week that the U-turn on check-off was a concession made by the Tories after some of the trade union leaders argued they couldn’t help to boost the EU Remain campaign because they had to prioritise fighting the worst aspects of the Trade Union Bill.

This is yet another indication of the divisions and weakness of the government over the EU and on many other issues.

Another reason is the disagreement amongst the ruling class over strategy with regards to the trade union movement. Lord Kerslake, former head of the civil service and no friend of PCS or civil servants, has hinted at the stance of some in the ruling class, which is: why risk destabilising those compliant union leaders who are blocking any fightback against austerity? They pose no real threat so why provoke a situation that risks left-wingers coming to power?

Dropping this provision from the Trade Union Bill demonstrates that all the arguments for the removal of check-off for PCS members by the government were lies and that it was nothing more than a vindictive, purely political act against a union that has led the fight against austerity.

PCS campaigned hard to sign up members to direct debit and did so at a rate unprecedented either nationally or internationally – PCS has emerged stronger from that attack. Before the check-off provision was dropped from the bill, PCS was not only offering solidarity to other unions facing the threat but material assistance and expertise as well.

There is a profound crisis in the leadership of the trade union movement. Some leaders have entirely accommodated themselves to capitalism, have no faith in the capacity of their members to struggle and can see no alternative to cuts, privatisation and austerity.

They refuse to organise joint coordinated action despite the fact that it is TUC agreed policy. Organising coordinated action would be the best way to break the pay freeze which is in place until 2020, but these leaders strongly resist it.

Such union leaders provide a barely hidden foundation of support for the ruling class, especially in times of crisis when it is attacking the working class with austerity policies.

Recent examples include when right-wing trade union leaders collaborated with the government to end the 2011 pensions dispute despite the enormous potential to win concessions or even defeat that attack through joint coordinated action across the public sector.
This collaboration plumbed new depths when some union leaders collaborated with the Tories in their attempt to break PCS through attacks on check-off and facility time.

Lack of determined campaign

The overall TUC campaign against the Trade Union Bill has been an utter disgrace. Rather than campaigning by exposing the real purpose of the attack – to prevent the unions from organising effective action to challenge austerity – it was rejected that there was even a link with austerity.
They preferred to highlight the “human rights” aspect rather than opposing the bill on an industrial basis, demonstrating an absolute failure to recognise what is going on in the lives of their members.

The check-off concession is an important one and lobbying politicians and even peers is an important and legitimate aspect of campaigning. But there has been no talk from the TUC about mobilising the strength of trade union members and the wider working class to defeat the bill.
Instead the TUC has praised ‘principled conservative peers’ for the concession and Unison general secretary Dave Prentis, with no trace of irony, tells his members that bishops in the House of Lords have ‘prayed for us’.

The campaign should go on and be stepped up to get rid of the rest of the bill, including the increased voting thresholds for industrial action. But the reality is that for the TUC leaders this check-off ‘victory’ will mark the end of a campaign that never got off the ground in the first place.

The law is not the decisive factor when it comes to thresholds and taking action. Struggle will continue whatever laws are implemented to stop it. But many union leaders are not exercised about thresholds and will readily argue that such measures make industrial action “impossible” – and they will be used as another excuse to avoid calling industrial action.
It is worth recalling that these same people never lifted a finger to demand that the Labour government scrap the anti-trade union laws.

All this reveals again that the TUC leadership does not effectively represent the working class. They see themselves as diplomats elevated above those they are supposed to represent, shuttling off to the ruling class to beg for crumbs from its table.

The real campaign against the Trade Union Bill has been carried out by the Trade Union Coordinating Group (TUCG), a group of left-wing trade unions which has organised demonstrations.

Demonstrations like that organised by the People’s Assembly on 16 April show the enormous potential for struggle but also highlight the failure of the TUC to galvanise that potential. Rather than sub-contracting its campaign work, the TUC – the official voice of the British organised working class – should be calling for and leading such demonstrations.

The Tory government is weak and making retreats – including recently by conceding to take a stake in a buyout of Tata Steel. The TUC should be leading from the front and must now build a serious campaign against the Trade Union Bill by – as a first step – calling a mass demonstration, linking it the fight to defend the NHS and support the junior doctors, and against austerity.

*Footnote: Check-off is the collection of union dues by the employer through deducting the dues from workers’ salaries and then passing the money to the union.

John McInally was interviewed about the Trade Union Bill on Russia Today:

This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 25 April 2016 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.