March update - Jim Kelly's view
11 March 2014
Most contributions this evening have highlighted the struggle in the public sector. My union, Unite, is the largest private sector union and I would like to give an overview of our fight to organise and win in the private sector. It was one of the early myths of the Con-Dem coalition that the public and private sector workforce has nothing in common. That’s a blatant lie; attacks on our welfare state, NHS and low pay plus job insecurity unite all workers.
My union, Unite, alongside other sister unions has scored notable victories beating Willy Walsh’s plans to destroy unions in CAT in 2010, defeating the bus cartels in London over the bus workers Olympic bonus in 2012 and defeating construction companies plans to smash union terms and conditions in the BESNA dispute in the building industry.
Unite has also been central, with UCATT, in exposing the illegal and undemocratic practice of blacklisting in the construction industry. This was, and is still, nothing short of a conspiracy between multi-national employers and the state.
In this region we have gained a net increase of over 4000 new members in 2013, a small but steady increase in membership in a number of key areas, not only in green field sites but through our 100% campaigns in organised workplaces. We have fought and won numerous recognition agreements from hostile employers.
We have fought a long 14 month leverage campaign at DP World in Essex and after 12 months of picketing DP World shareholders and magnificent solidarity action in 2 Spanish ports by dockworkers we now have an access agreement which we are determined to turn into a recognition agreement.
The port will employ up to 2000 workers when fully functioning, and the logistics park alongside it will house many thousands of new distribution companies, many relocating from sites with existing Unite recognition agreements. It is vital for the workers in the port that Unite organises the port effectively.
All the above examples are private sector disputes. But in the private sector, workers covered by collective bargaining agreements hav dropped to only 16%, the average in the EU is 62%, France has 95%,only Lithuania has less with 15%. Collective bargaining is working men and women’s mechanism for ensuring economic social justice, without effective unions and effective collective bargaining we face more rising inequality and rising crime impacting on our living standards and communities. As a member of the Labour party we need to ensure that sector wide collective bargaining is up there at the top of the next Labour government’s agenda in 2015.
And the only way to ensure there is effective collective bargaining is to have the right to strike.
We need to demand the right to collective bargaining and to withdraw our labour as protected by the ILO Charter and Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It’s no surprise that in Greece, the European country most affected by the onslaught on democracy and living standards, the TROIKA (EU, European Central Bank and IMF) has ruled collective national bargaining to be illegal.
The recent Unite disputes showed how present legislation, designed to tie unions in bureaucratic knots, comes pretty close to outlawing effective strike action. The Tory right wing (Is there a Tory left wing?) are baying for even more draconian anti trade union legislation. The recent example of the RMT/TSSA dispute in London shows how far the right is prepared to go to smash trade unions. Boris Johnson, elected by 17% of London’s voters on a 38% turnout demands even more draconian action.
David Cameron is ecstatic when attacking unions, but especially attacking Unite and our general secretary Len McCluskey. At the end of last year, during the Grangemouth dispute Cameron was in the Far East and was asked a question about a local issue and turned it into a 5 minute rant against Len. Two of the key lessons of Grangemouth are the need for a trade union bill of rights to protect workers and nationalisation of all energy suppliers in the UK to ensure national energy security.
The Con-Dem coalition has now set up an inquiry into Unites leverage strategy and other trade union issues. As Steve Turner said at the People’s Assembly last year, The coalition should tread carefully, if they push unions outside the law, we will be forced to fight outside the law, they think the solution is to buy second hand water cannons, attack student demonstrations and pursue a strategy of criminalising unions and protests.
Unions are not the “enemy within”, we represent 6 million people plus their families. We are the main bulwark against the increasing attacks on living standards under the guise of austerity. Unite’s strategy of linking employed workers with communities is a necessary attempt to bridge the divisions between employed and unemployed. There are a number of major demonstrations being organised this year, by the People’s Assembly on budget day on 19 March, followed by a national demonstration on 21 June and a national TUC demonstration in September. We all need to ensure they are as large as possible.
The Tories do not like protests, last year in Manchester over 50,000 people marched against attacks on the NHS at the Tory conference, not one national newspaper reported it, the BBC also refused to report it. We need to redouble our efforts to stop the salami slice privatisation of the NHS. Defending the NHS, demanding a massive council house building programme and defending trade union freedoms should be three priority areas we need to mobilise our members around.
The 2015 general election has already begun, what will be one of the nastiest general elections for decades with Lynton Crosby already diving down into the gutter, followed closely by the Daily Mail's personalised attacks on Labour party figures such as Patricia Hewitt and Harriet Harman, the recent manufactured hysteria about Romanians could be just a taster. How disappointing for the racists in the coalition as well as UKIP when just two people on the first Easyjet flight from Romania on 1 January contained only 2 Romanians, both of whom lived and worked in the UK.
Unions need to rebuild industrial strength in the private sector. All unions have to develop and strengthen their organising strategies, rebuilding workplace power, defending terms and conditions and putting a stop on the race to the bottom.
Unions need to keep fighting, if we stand united we can win, as the RMT/TSSA showed so magnificently last week in London and Unite has shown in the above industrial disputes. We have to ensure that this coalition is kicked out in 2015 and that trade union freedom is a key policy for an incoming Labour government.
Chair, London & Eastern region