Workers’ & Trade Union Rights are our Priority – Alex Gordon, RMT #TUC23


“RMT believes that Labour & other parties should see the extension of workers’ rights as the vote winner it surely is.”

Alex Gordon

By Alex Gordon, RMT President

Since the Cameron/Clegg Coalition government in 2010, a series of Tory Prime Ministers – building on three earlier decades of anti-union legislation and neoliberal “reform” of the labour market – have unleashed further savage attacks on workers’ rights, introducing draconian restrictions on the ability to organise, bargain and take industrial action collectively in effective trade unions.  

The result is a “wild west” of employment standards, with an epidemic of poverty pay, zero hours contracts, bogus self-employment, proliferation of outsourcing, agency labour and umbrella companies, “fire and rehire” and – as we saw in the P&O Ferries scandal in 2022 – ”fire and replace”.  

Trade unions’ ability to organise to fightback against these attacks on our members have been shackled by introduction of arbitrary ballot turnout thresholds (Trade Union Act 2016) and further bureaucratic hurdles, and continued insistence on the anachronism of mandatory postal ballots.  

Should “minimum service levels” ever be implemented during industrial action as outlined in the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023, trade unions will be required to instruct their own members to comply with work notices to cross official picket lines in disputes that they have voted for and support. Members not complying can be lawfully dismissed, or disciplined by their employer and unions not complying will lose their immunity from prosecution.

 Whatever their stated intentions, the outcome of the Tories’ latest anti-union, anti-worker law is the conscription of labour. This is the stark reality behind Tory ministers’ hypocritical waffle about guaranteeing minimum service levels, something their government routinely fails to achieve across public service delivery due to endemic low pay, staffing gaps and reliance on overtime working.

The experience of RMT members at P&O Ferries was perhaps the absolute lowest point in this desert of workers’ rights. Unlawfully dismissed with no prior consultation, seafarers with decades of service saw their employment terminated without notice, to be replaced by an exploited migrant workforce flown in from some of the lowest wage economies on the planet to be paid below the National Minimum Wage working 12-hour shifts on 17-week deployments on board ships where they are little more than prisoners. P&O’s sacked workers were met by hired goons in balaclavas attempting to frogmarch them off their vessels, before confiscating personal effects they had been unable to rescue from their cabins. Welcome to employment in 21st century Britain!   

The next Labour government must take decisive action to deliver rights at work for millions of workers in the UK. We know another Tory government will further strip away what meagre rights we have left. Already Tory right-wingers have called for all employment protection to be forfeited for workers in firms employing fewer than 500 workers.

That’s why Labour’s “New Deal for Working People” is so important for all trade unionists and working people. A Green Paper was published following extensive work by former Shadow Employment Secretary Andy McDonald MP, based on extensive consultation across the trade union movement including both Labour’s TULO affiliates and wider TUC-affiliated unions including the RMT, together with the expert guidance of Employment Law Barrister John Hendy KC and Professor Keith Ewing of the Institute of Employment Rights.    

The “New Deal” document opens with a foreword by Deputy Leader Angela Rayner MP, promising:

“…from day one, a Labour government will strengthen workers’ rights and make Britain work for working people…. Everyone deserves a job they can live on and build a life on, no matter who they are or what job they do.  Our ambition to ensure a fair day’s pay for a day’s work is core to our values.  We all deserve high-quality, secure, rewarding jobs.   That is why Labour in power will secure a New Deal for Working People”.

RMT shares this ambition from establishing Fair Pay Agreements through mandatory sectoral collective bargaining and repealing anti-trade union legislation to banning zero hours contracts, ending bogus self-employment, outlawing Fire and Rehire and introducing day-one rights for every worker and single worker status. If implemented such measures would have a hugely positive impact on workers’ lives across the full range of employment sectors, particularly for transport workers.

We are under no illusions that simply voting in a new government will guarantee our ambitions will be realised. Experience and political intelligence tells us that the countervailing powers which any incoming government faces are already are exerting a formidable influence on Labour’s potential programme for government.

Even a government with a genuine intention to implement progressive policies will need to mobilise active public support and face down vested interests. That’s why it is so important that we need now to find a popular message and language and campaign that ensures the benefits of the New Deal are understood by millions of working people.  

A future Labour government, which claims to extend workers’ rights will need to do more than invoke broad ambitions. It will need to develop detail of how to implement change, how to repeal and improve laws, and how to ensure new measures will bite. Critically, it will need be establish a timetable to hit the ground running and not see these urgently needed changes delayed and ultimately frustrated.

Therefore, a key task now of the broad Labour movement including all of our trade unions should be to ensure that Labour develops this detail in advance of the general election and that the clear, unambiguous commitment to legislate within the first 100 days of a Labour government for the speedy and full implementation of the New Deal is in Labour’s next manifesto.

RMT believes that Labour and other parties should see the extension of workers’ rights as the vote winner it surely is. Rather than playing to the narrative of the Tory press by adopting an apologetic attitude, which portrays these pledges as ‘concessions’ to the unions, they should be enthusiastically promoting the New Deal for Working People as core to delivering the kind of change the people of our country so desperately need.

Featured image: Alex Gordon, RMT President.

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