Labour must repeal ALL anti-trade union laws and replace them with strong legal workers’ rights

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02/08/2019 by socialistfight

Socialist Fight statement 2-8-19

At the Tolpuddle Martyrs rally in Dorset [1] on 21st July Jeremy Corbyn pledged to repeal “the Trade Union Act”. That would be the 2016 Act passed by Cameron, but significantly he made no mention of the seven major anti-unions Acts passed by the Thatcher governments between 1980 and 1993. Oversight? No, this is what the 2017 Manifesto, For the Many, not the Few says in clause 4 of Rights at Work: “Repeal the Trade Union Act and roll out sectoral collective bargaining – because the most effective way to maintain good rights at work is collectively through a union.”

But there could be no mistaking the political import of the article in the Morning Star of 26 July: In a full-page rambling article Andy Green, Secretary of the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom, produced this gem towards the end:

“A new Industrial Relations Act could and should, we believe, restore a right to strike without necessarily making a public bonfire of the Thatcherite Acts of Parliament.”

The Campaign for Trade Union Freedom

The Campaign for Trade Union Freedom (CTUF)”, the article informs us at the end, “was established in 2013 following a merger of the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade (LCDTU) Unions and the United Campaign to Repeal the Anti Trade Union Laws. The CTUF is a campaigning organisation fighting to defend and enhance trade unionism, oppose all anti-union laws as well as promoting and defending collective bargaining across UK, Europe and the World.”

The Constitution of the CTUF was adopted by the provisional National Committee on 3rd December 2012, consisting of Bob Crow, President, Tony Burke, Chair, Andy Green, National Secretary, John Usher, Director, Carolyn Jones, Assistant Secretary (Director of the Institute of Employment Rights) and Adrian Weir, Assistant Secretary. Note; it was not thought necessary to put it to a founding conference because there wasn’t one. In March 2013 it was ‘launched’ with no internal democratic structures. [2]

It is pledged to “oppose all anti-union laws” not to repeal them. The LCDTU was a front for the Communist Party and the latter was more the representatives of the whole trade union bureaucracy. Both were then for the repeal of all Thatcher’s anti-trade union laws. And the new organisation was for that also.

John Moloney, Assistant General Secretary PCS union, writing in a personal capacity in the AWL’s website Workers Liberty on 31 July explains the origins of the United Campaign to Repeal the Anti Trade Union Laws:

“1997 saw the launch of the Campaign for Free Trade Unions. It was an open, democratic, rank-and-file based campaign, aimed at mobilising labour movement pressure on the new Labour government to repeal the Thatcher anti-union laws. Members of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) were central to launching that campaign. As a report from the time records, “the conference heard from representatives of all the key disputes taking place at the moment – Liverpool dockers, Hillingdon hospital, Critchley Labels, Magnet Kitchens, Project Aerospace, London post, and British Airways”. It was keystoned by Liverpool City Unison. Desiring and advocating unity, after a while that Campaign agreed a merger with another group in which the Morning Star and Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party were more active, to form a “United Campaign for the Repeal of the Anti Trade Union Laws”. [3]

The AWL had agreed to this, which certainly was not the original, ‘an open, democratic, rank-and-file based campaign’ that John Moloney outlines above. They were sucked in and swallowed up by another group (name?) led by the Stalinist, which is why they have such difficulty in replying to the attack by Andy Green on behalf of the entire TU bureaucracy (with those honourable exceptions). The CPGB front, the LCDTU, was led by Bert Ramelson, the CPGB Industrial Organiser. So, the March 2013 fusion and launch was between the group dominated by Bob Crow, former member of the CPGB/CPB and the CPB/Morning Star. Old comrades reunited.

It was challenged on the left by the IS, the IMG and the SLL/WRP in those militant years of the 1970s and tacked far more to the left in defence of its own left flank and under pressure from the far left who were gaining the ear of workers who wanted to fight, than is normal for mainstream Stalinism. Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon supported Labour’s Social Contract, to attack the wages and conditions of the working class and the CPGB were forced to publicly repudiate them, leaving their broad left strategy in ruins. The simply left the field. Ramelson never supported the Social Contract either but never joined the CPB after its split with the Euro Stalinists. The IS/SWP was in their rank and file phase at the time and fought well but could not replace the LCDTU when they abandoned the struggle. The WRP’s All Trade Union Alliance was too obviously a party front to attract and serious workers in struggle and the IMG’s turn to industry was too little too late. The New Communist Party’s split with upwards of a thousand members in 1977, led by Sid French was obviously a split to the left but never questioned the reformist essence of Stalinism, particularly in an imperialist country.

Nothing revolutionary in the CPGB’s industrial strategy

Dr Evan Smith, Research Fellow in History in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at Flinders University, South Australia, who blogs at A Hatful of History has the following to say of that period in reviewing Roger Seifert’s and Tom Sibley’s book Revolutionary Communist at Work: A Political Biography of Bert Ramelson, surely not accidentally in 2013, the same year as the founding of the CTUF: [4]

“But it was John McIlroy and John Callaghan who explored in most detail the industrial strategy and Ramelson’s role within it. McIlroy and Callaghan had, in different papers, argued that the Communist Party’s plan to shift the direction of the labour movement by occupying key positions in the trade unions and promote working with Labour left trade unionists, such as Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, had limited success in achieving this and relied on attempting to wield influence within the upper echelons of the unions, while ignoring the mass base of the rank-and-file. For McIlroy and Callaghan, the Communist Party’s claims of ‘victories’, such as the defeat of the Harold Wilson’s anti-union policies, the resistance to Heath’s Industrial Relations Bill and the Miners’ Strike which brought down the Heath Government in 1974, were spurious, as the Party’s industrial wing was largely in step with the broader leadership of the trade unions and did not seek to radically move the agenda of the labour movement at this time towards a revolutionary socialist programme.

“However, one of the major criticisms of this biography that can be made is that the authors do not really expand on what was ‘revolutionary’ in the Party’s industrial strategy or how the CPGB could be deemed to be ‘revolutionary’ after the adoption of the parliamentary road to socialism in 1951 (The British Road to Socialism-SFG). The narrative contained within this biography is essentially based on the ‘traditionalist’ politics of the CPGB (now taken up by the Communist Party of Britain and the Morning Star newspaper), which emphasised industrial militancy as the practical manifestation of the class struggle, combined with (critical) support for the Soviet Union. This wing of the CPGB, and its remnants in the CPB, were disapproving of Stalinism, but much more vocal in their criticism of the ‘Euros’ who took over the Party in the 1980s. The authors seem to suggest that to call the industrial/broad left strategy undertaken by the CPGB in the 1960s/70s ‘labourism’ or ‘reformism’ is a Trotskyist ultra-left slur, but the programme set out in The British Road to Socialism placed emphasis on using the trade unions to foster a Communist-Labour left alliance to achieve socialism via the parliamentary system. This is not a revolutionary programme. Even the major industrial struggles of the period when Ramelson was Industrial Organiser were not progressive struggles to expand socialist policies through the labour movement, but defensive struggles to protect trade union and collective bargaining rights, as well as the maintenance of wages in line with inflation.” [5]

Tom Sibley answered immediately, in a reply posted below Evan Smith’s review, in defence of his own work of two years previously with this classic amalgam of the politics of revolution and reformism, attempting to show that they are entirely ideologically and politically compatible:

“The essence of revolutionary politics in a capitalist society is the pursuit of state power in order to advance the interests of the working class and its allies while creating conditions for the new ruling class to control all important aspects of society. It is just as revolutionary to do this using parliamentary institutions as it is to storm the gates of the Winter Palace. The crucial challenge is to destroy the capitalist state and replace it with institutions and personnel fully accountable to the working class and its allies. How to do this and how the Party’s industrial strategy was a crucial component of its revolutionary programme is discussed in detail in our book (see pages 83–91), and we are disappointed that the reviewer appears to have overlooked this.” [6]

We have not seen pages 83–91 but understand immediately that this requires us to ignore the role of the capitalist state, its state forces in the police, army, secret services of MI5. Marx’s and Engels’s only correction to their 1848 Communist Manifesto was precisely on this point, learning from the experience of the first workers state in the Paris Commune of 1871. The coup of Pinochet on the other 9/11 of 1973 in Chile against Allende is the oft-cited example of what happens to those who do not understand what the capitalist state is and foolishly imagine that the ruling class anywhere will yield their power and privileges to the ‘will of the people’.

Lenin explains:

“The last preface to the new German edition of the Communist Manifesto, signed by both its authors, is dated June 24, 1872. In this preface the authors, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, say that the programme of the Communist Manifesto “has in some details become out-of-date”, and the go on to say:

“… One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes’….”[1]

“The authors took the words that are in single quotation marks in this passage from Marx’s book, The Civil War in France. Thus, Marx and Engels regarded one principal and fundamental lesson of the Paris Commune as being of such enormous importance that they introduced it as an important correction into the Communist Manifesto.

“Most characteristically, it is this important correction that has been distorted by the opportunists, and its meaning probably is not known to nine-tenths, if not ninety-nine-hundredths, of the readers of the Communist Manifesto. We shall deal with this distortion more fully farther on, in a chapter devoted specially to distortions. Here it will be sufficient to note that the current, vulgar “interpretation” of Marx’s famous statement just quoted is that Marx here allegedly emphasizes the idea of slow development in contradistinction to the seizure of power, and so on.” [7]

The last sentence by Lenin here applies directly to the reformist politics of the CPGB then (today’s CPB/Morning Star) and Bert Ramelson as so well outlined by Tom Sibley above. Remember Lenin wrote this essential reading for all serious revolutionary socialists in August and September of 1917 and never finished it because he explained that making the revolution (in October) was for more important than writing about it.

Adapting to the 2017 Manifesto for opportunist reasons

In the constitution of the CTUF clause v made that clear:

v. The right to fulfilling work, decent pay, good conditions and fair employment rights;

1.         To repeal the anti-union laws;

2.         To extend the coverage of collective bargaining;

7.         To encourage the involvement of shop stewards and other union workplace representatives in campaigning for the above;

But now there is a real desperation to adapt to the 2017 Manifesto for opportunist reasons. To cover this political collapse Andy Green adopts a ‘shoot the messenger’ character assassination of the AWL and Sean Matgamna in particular. A totally irrelevant recounting of his history to prove what a splitter and wrecker he is then ends up with a pathetic plea to ignore what the campaign initiated by The Clarion, which is controlled by the AWL, says. Outrageously, Green splutters,

“As we have observed, it has recently launched through one of its newspapers, The Clarion, a campaign for trade union rights, called Free our Unions because, in its opinion, the think tank the Institute of Employment Rights, and its allies in the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom have lost the plot. In keeping with classical Trotskyism, it even has what it may imagine is a set of transitional demands — repeal all the anti-union laws. A demand that it says other campaigning bodies have dropped.”

Well Green and all the predecessor of the CTUF had campaigned for these ‘Trotskyist’ transitional demands up to 2017. And the bonfire quote above makes it clear that they have all abandoned that now. Andy Green here, like the Morning Star, speaks for the Trade Union bureaucracy collectively, and they are now determined that the seven major anti trade union acts passed by Thatcher are NOT to be repealed. The unions who support the model motion circulated by Free Our Unions demanding the repeal of all the anti-trade union laws are the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), the Rail and Maritime Union (RMT) and the small but militant, non-TUC, the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB). And the list of some 90 regions and local branches and other labour movement bodies that support some version of that model resolution is impressive.

Matt Wrack, writing in the Morning Star on 1st August made clear the FBU were not only standing clearly behind the Free Our Unions campaign but repudiated Andy Green’s article on 26 July, albeit from a radical reformist stance.

“But revoking that one Act of Parliament is not enough. There are decades of anti-union laws, going back to the Thatcher era, that continue to shackle our movement. That’s why, at the FBU conference in May, firefighters voted overwhelmingly to back the Free Our Unions campaign. I was disappointed to read Andy Green’s article attacking Free Our Unions (July 26) … Or is it a political argument that we should aim for “a” right to strike — undefined here — but not to remove all the restrictions? If so, what restrictions should we favour a Labour government keeping?… Removing all the Tory restrictions must be our goal; I cannot see how this is possible without repealing the Tory laws. We need to go further, to win positive legal rights — but repealing the anti-union laws should be the baseline. In the words of Bob Crow, we need to repeal and replace.” [8]

We see here a very important division in the trade unions and the labour movement in general. A division in the ranks of the Stalinist and the bureaucracy in general. We must be unhesitatingly on the side of Matt Wrack, Mick Cash, the IWGB and all those grass roots labour bodies who have rallied to the Free Our Unions campaign, without politically conceding our own perspectives as revolutionary socialists. That is the essence of the Leninist/Trotskyist application of the United Front, and the method of the Transitional Programme.

Seeing that in the past the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom DID support the repeal of all eight anti-trade union Acts why has this sudden change of direction occurred? In other words, why is the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom and the majority of the trade union bureaucracy seemingly now opposed to trade union freedom?

True this has always been a dead dog organisation, never campaigning for what its name says, simply asserting it. Its website lists as supporters many dead union leaders and many unions that no longer exist. And no major union has ever campaigned to abolish these laws, merely agreed they were bad.

The Campaign for Trade Union Freedom

The 2017 Labour conference passed a motion to repeal ALL anti trade union acts, reaffirmed it in 2018 and similar motions are going to the 2019 conference.

Of course, a central purpose of these laws was to strengthen the domination of the bureaucracy over the membership of the unions. And it has worked a treat. Now the fear grows that if the members begins an assault against austerity, they will not deal kindly with that bureaucracy that worked so hard to impose it on their own membership.

On this issue the AWL is entirely correct. The attack on Matgamna is ad hominem, ‘shoot the messenger’ to blind us to the real content of that reactionary article. We have many irreconcilable differences with the AWL, not least their pro-imperialism and pro-Zionism, meaning that ultimately this third campist group seeks to buy off the British labour aristocracy with the booty of imperialism. However, not all members are conscious of this objective truth. We take a principled united front stance with them against this shocking abandonment of the struggles for workers’ rights.

The 2017 Labour Party conference voted unanimously to call for repeal the 2016 Trade Union Act and all the “anti-union laws introduced in the 1980s and 90s” by the Tories and maintained by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. And that motion should supersede the 2017 election Manifesto, which signalled a definitive turn against neo-liberalism, but a weak and incomplete one. That 2017 resolution, moved by USDAW and seconder by the GMB finished with many strong demands including:

• support workers’ struggles for workplace rights to a safe, secure, intimidation-free working environment

• pursue policies for £10ph living wage and scrapping zero hours contracts

• introduce a statutory right to contracts that reflect the hours a person normally works

• repeal the TU Act and anti-union laws introduced in the 1980s and 90s

• introduce a strong legal charter of workers’ rights to unionise, win recognition and collective bargaining

• promote trade union rights, access to workplaces and collective bargaining

What has changed since then that prompted the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom to begin to oppose trade union freedom?

What those Seven Thatcherite Anti-Union laws say

The AWL gives a good summary of those seven Acts [9]:

The 1980 Employment Act

  • Abolished trade union recognition rights and initiated a code of practice of only six pickets.
  • Made solidarity action illegal.
  • Severely restricted the closed shop, which now had to be approved by 85% of the workforce.

The 1982 Employment Act

  • Introduced an extremely limited notion of a ‘trade dispute’ which when coupled with the 1980 Act, outlawed most forms of solidarity action including international solidarity with workers who are employed by the same multinational companies – one of many precursors to the rapid progress of globalised capital that we are witness to today.
  • Limited the definition of a legal strike whereby workers could only take action against their immediate employer. A strike had to be wholly related to pay and conditions, dismissals, redundancies, sackings, disciplinaries or union membership. Workers could not strike for political reasons.
  • Made trade unions legally liable to pay disabling damages from strikes. Fines of up to £250,000 could be charged. If fines were not paid, the union’s entire funds could be sequestrated.

The 1984 Trade Union Act

  • Made it illegal to strike without a ballot and ordered unions to instruct their members that they are breaking their contract of employment if they vote in favour of strike action.
  • Imposed on unions a ten-yearly ballot to decide whether to have a political fund i.e. whether union money could be spent on political campaigning and affiliation

The 1988 Employment Act

  • Imposed postal ballots – as against workplace or branch meetings – to decide on union executive elections or decisions on political funds (even though workplace ballots get a higher rate of participation).
  • Made it illegal for unions to expel or discipline members who refuse to participate in industrial action after a legal ballot.

The 1989 Employment Act

  • Restricted time off for trade union reps.
  • Introduced a pre-hearing assessment for industrial tribunals to scrutinise the validity of any applicant’s case.

The 1990 Employment Act

  • Made pre-entry closed shops illegal, resulting in a gradual erosion of trade union membership.
  • Held trade unions financially responsible for walk-outs and unofficial action unless they publicly disowned a dispute.
  • Allowed the sacking of stewards and key union members involved in unofficial action.
  • Made all secondary action illegal.

The 1993 Employment Act

  • Introduced a minimum six-week delay between the decision to ballot and the date of any industrial action.
  • Required that members give written confirmation that they want their union dues automatically deducted from their wage packets.
  • Gave people the right to sue unions if industrial action ‘damages’ them.
  • Abolished wages councils which previously had afforded some protection to workers in some sectors.

The Trade Union Act 2016 and the Trade Union bureaucracy

The Trade Union Act 2016 was strongly opposed by all trade unions because it threatened the existence of trade unions themselves and therefore the jobs and privileges of the bureaucracy itself.

Section 2 introduced a new requirement of 50% of union members to vote in a ballot for strike action. Section 3 requires that in health, school education, fire, transport, nuclear decommissioning and border security there must be 40% support of those entitled to vote in a workplace with the 50% turnout for a strike to be legal.

The entire TU bureaucracy, as a separate social layer or cast resting on the working class, are the prime ideological defenders and the secondary practical defenders of capitalist property relations and profits after the actual state forces themselves and their institutions. They are closely tied to the maintenance of global imperialism. This bureaucracy does rely strongly on a skilled elite workforce and in conjunction with these they ideologically dominate the entire workforce. They aim to become the “UKIP of the left”, to be a left populist version of the far right Europhobic UKIP, now the Brexit party. This social layer of left bureaucrats in Britain is ideologically defended by the Socialist Party and its National Shop Stewards Network.


It should be absolutely clear that to allow these laws to remain on the statute book while passing another law to grant workers other rights is absolutely misguided and wrong. Crucially an essential element of workers’ rights, the right to take solidarity strike action with other workers in struggle nationally and internationally will remain banned on the statute books and the closely related matter of political strikes remains banned also.

It will remain illegal for workers to fight collectively for their own liberation with the perspective of revolutionary internationalist socialism, or indeed of reformist socialism, which is how it must begin.

That was how the class historically became a class for itself rather than just objectively a class in itself. The Tolpuddle martyrs transported to Australia in 1834 were pardoned in 1836 and returned home in 1837 because of political strikes and solidarity action which is illegal now in 2019. Similarly, with the Bryant and Mays Matchgirls and the Docker Tanner strikes of 1888 and 89; again these great formative solidarity actions are now illegal.

And every generation must re-establish its own rights and they have done so continually since then, the Great Unrest (1910-14), the Triple Alliance (1914-21), to our own great miners’ strike (1984-85) and the Liverpool dockers strike (1995-98). All these actions are now illegal and almost the entire trade union bureaucracy, with the few honourable exceptions mentioned above, have accepted this in the most craven acts of class betrayal.


[1] Wiki, The Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival and Rally is an annual festival held the village of Tolpuddle, in Dorset, England, which celebrates the memory of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. The event is a celebration of trade unionism and labour politics organised by the Dorset Committee of the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers, now a section of Unite the Union, and the Trades Union Congress (TUC). The festival is usually held in the third week of July and features a parade of banners from many trade unions, a memorial service, speeches and music.

[2] Fighting For Freedom, April 25, 2013, From the RMT Newsletter, Unions launch united campaign to demand the repeal of anti-trade laws, The Campaign for Trade Union Freedom (CTUF), launched last month with the support of 25 national trade unions, began a fight to roll back the anti-union laws that have attempted to shackle working people in Britain since the 1980s.

[3]John Moloney, Assistant General Secretary PCS union, personal capacity,31 July, 2019, Yes, we should repeal all the anti-union laws!, A reply to the Morning Star who on 26 July published an article by Unite activist Andy Green attacking the AWL and the Free Our Unions campaign,

[4]Roger Seifert, Tom Sibley, London, Lawrence and Wishart, 2011, Revolutionary Communist at Work: A Political Biography of Bert Ramelson.

[5] Dr Evan Smith, March 2013, Date accessed: 1 August 2019, review of Revolutionary Communist at Work: A Political Biography of Bert Ramelson, (review no. 1394),

[6] Ibid, Tom Sibley, 14/03/2013.

[7] Lenin, August – September 1917, The State and Revolution: The Marxist Theory of the State and the Tasks of the tasks of the proletariat in the revolution, What Made the Communards’ Attempt Heroic?

[8] Matt Wrack, Morning Star, 1 -8-19, For too long, trade unions have been held back: we must set them free,

[9] Janine, AWL, 5 July 2004, Laws Against Trade Unions, (slightly edited)

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