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Trade union freedom is the key to an equal society

Last Saturday the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom held its launch rally, a well attended event with good speakers from all across the Labour Movement.

Trade Union freedoms need to be on the agenda for a Labour government in office as the cornerstone of any fairer economic settlement. This view has been echoed by Len McCluskey who has outlined to Ed Miliband that Unite’s three policy priorities for a Labour government are “trade union freedoms, trade union freedoms, trade union freedoms.”

Ed Miliband has critiqued the unequal “predator” capitalism that has predominated in Britain since Thatcher and resulted in high inequality. Indeed, since the whole thing has come crashing down around us in the financial crisis, he has made some noises towards challenging this economic settlement by rebuilding an economy that isn’t simply based around finance and services.

However what the labour leadership need to realise is that the 30 year decline in working peoples’ living standards: falling wages; the rise of chronic unemployment and underemployment; and soaring inequality, has only been possible because of the Tories’ attacks on the organisations that have directly fought in the interests of working people: the trade unions.

Everyone on the left will know the story of what happened. Trade unions were first taken on and defeated industrially during the 1980s (Wapping and the Miners’ Strike exemplify this) and then these defeats were cemented by laws limiting not only trade unions’ ability to strike and take action, but also to organising in the workplace. Shamefully the Labour government did nothing to reverse these restrictions on workers’ ability to organise. Unsurprisingly, with working people significantly more powerless to maintain decent pay, inequality soared.

An increase in trade union freedom would fit perfectly well with Ed Miliband’s idea of “predistribution”, i.e.that we need to create a fair economy that distributes goods equitably in the first place, without the need for government intervention. With an increase of power for working people at workplace level, directly in the face of their employer, this would mean that people can directly demand decent wages, resulting in greater equality without the government having to do anything.

In Labour circles there is a constant emphasis on having to appear prudent with money and attempt to deliver social justice with the least possible cost to the public purse. Whilst Labour should not be afraid to argue for borrowing to increase investment and stimulus increasing trade union freedom is a policy that would not cost a labour government one penny in terms of spending but would probably be the most significant policy possible in advancing a more equal society.

Indeed increasing trade union freedom would in fact end up saving a Labour government money. Governments have had to subsidise low wages of employers with tax credits, housing benefits and other such measures. If workers were better able to organise to get a decent wage from their employers in the first place, the government would not need to spend as much money on keeping people with low incomes afloat.

A trade union freedom bill, scrapping many of the restrictions on organising and taking action in workplaces, should be a priority for a future labour government. Trade union organisation is the cornerstone of building a fair society and it would end up saving a Labour government money in keeping people on low wages above the poverty line.

Ultimately if a Labour government really wants to increase equality it needs to empower people at their workplaces to fight for decent wages and conditions themselves; the rest will take care of itself.

One Comment

  1. Chris Brennan says:

    The small fact of the trade unions being severely anti immigrant may hinder attempts at strengthening the working class as a whole

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