to defy the anti-union laws in support of the FBU
Time to defy the anti-union laws in support of the FBU
The decision by the RMT rail union to postpone a Tube drivers' ballot for action on safety grounds while firefighters are on strike is a matter for concern.
RMT leaders took their decision following an explicit threat by Prime Minister Blair that London Underground management would act in the courts to have such a strike declared unlawful. Instead of organising a ballot, the union is seeking legal advice.
What they will hear from expensive lawyers is what we all know already. Under legislation introduced by the Tories - and retained by New Labour - unions that take action in support of other workers are liable to heavy fines and ultimately to have their assets seized by the state.
This is only the latest of a series of challenges posed by New Labour in its determination to smash the Fire Brigades Union and impose a package of job losses and worse conditions on firefighters.
Is the trade union movement in general, and those who say they support the FBU in particular, going to rise to this challenge? Or are they going to use the cover of "legality" to hold back from delivering effective support for the FBU?
A number of union leaders, including TUC general secretary John Monks, have recognised that this confrontation raises major political issues alongside the FBU's pay claim. New Labour does not want a compromise and plans to teach the whole trade union movement a lesson.
In that sense, the firefighters are to New Labour what the miners were to the Tories under Thatcher.
Under these conditions it is unacceptable for union leaders to talk about "legality". It just becomes an excuse for doing nothing and allowing New Labour to cordon off the FBU from the rest of the working class.
In any case, we are not talking about challenging laws against murder, or driving on the wrong side of the road or robbery. The anti-union laws are class laws introduced with the purpose of stopping trade unionists from exercising their basic right to strike in support of their brothers and sisters.
The trade unions should hold these laws in contempt and not quiver when they hear the phrase "legal action". Concern is expressed about the danger to union assets if the courts intervene. This is another excuse. These assets are worthless if they are a barrier to taking effective action.
Unions were not built to sit on assets or to run credit card schemes. It is about time they remembered those who gave their lives in the 19th century in defiance of the Combination Acts and the Tolpuddle Martyrs who the TUC likes to commemorate with a march each year.
Unless the current anti-union laws are defied, there is nothing effective other unions can do in support of the firefighters. It is good that the TUC is organising a national demonstration in support of the FBU, even though it is called for a Saturday to avoid workers walking out to join a mid-week march. But marches and financial donations will not by themselves win this struggle.
Only a broadening of the strike to involve other workers can create the conditions for defeating the government. To leave the FBU isolated is to play into New Labour's hands and the outcome could seriously weaken every trade unionist in Britain.
New Labour's encouragement to employers to use the anti-union laws is only another indication of what a deeply reactionary government this is. It could easily pay the firefighters' claim but has no intention of doing so. Instead, it puts money aside for an invasion and occupation of Iraq.
The trade union movement has to face up to what has happened politically. New Labour is not a right-wing group that has seized control of Labour. New Labour is a party that represents business and financial interests in place of the Tories. Blair and Brown are the managing directors of Britain PLC.
In 1900, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, forerunner of today's RMT, was sued for damages by the Taff Vale company in South Wales. In 1901 the House of Lords upheld the judgement, which meant that unions could be fined for any strike action at all.
This judgement gave a tremendous boost to the building of the newly-formed Labour Party. A century later, the RMT and other unions are faced with defying both the anti-union laws and creating a party to replace New Labour. That is the lesson of the FBU's struggle.
for a Socialist Future