Remembering Michael

Durham Miners' Gala, Michael Foot
Michael Foot at the Durham Miners' Gala, 1963

My second NEC (4/5 March) was well attended, eventful and interesting. We made some useful decisions and some less so (well that’s true of most meetings in my experience). At the start, I asked the meeting to mark the death of Michael Foot, former leader of the Labour Party. This is not because I am (and still) a member of that party, and also share his passion for Plymouth Argyle, but because Michael was made a Member of Honour at our 1985 ADM.

This was not because of his great contributions to journalism, culture, or CND, but because, as secretary of state for employment in the 1974 Labour government, he led the parliamentary tussle with the Tories and the House of Lords to restore the closed shop, which had been outlawed by the Conservative’s post 1970 legislation.

The NUJ had supported the closed shop since an ADM decision of 1920 and for example in Fleet Street, before the 1971 Act, closed shops had been set up without any problems at all. With all the difficulties we have today with the ’New’ Labour government and trade union rights, it’s amazing to think that ‘Old’ Labour was determined to reverse much of Tories anti-union legislation they had introduced. Despite a small majority in he Commons and a hostile Lords, Foot persisted and in the end the Act was passed. So thanks for that Michael and your great contributions to journalism, literature and especially your oratory. You will be greatly missed. An excellent account of Michael Foot’s contribution to the union may be found in ‘Journalists -100 years of the NUJ’ by Gopsill and Neale.

On the subject of anti-union laws, there was some debate in the NEC as to whether we should include a call for their repeal in the list of questions the union proposes to send out to parliamentary candidates in the forthcoming general election. Some members felt that we should concentrate on media only related questions, others, including myself, supported their inclusion. After all it was the NUJ under the leadership of general secretary John Foster, which had led the Press for Union Rights campaign in the 1980/90s and we still campaign for them today. After debate and on a vote, it was agreed that it be included. So, in the next few weeks, branches need to start gearing up for the campaign. Details will be sent out from HQ shortly and will be on the NUJ web site.

After the NEC had finished a number of us went to the PCS HQ in Clapham to represent the union at the Trade Union Co-ordinating Group convention. This group, which the NUJ supports, was founded two years ago by four unions, to better co-ordinate their lobbying of the government and parliament as well as their campaigning work. Since then the number of supporting unions has doubled, along with the workload.

This meeting was called to discuss pre and post election strategies. It also included a number of guest speakers including the economist and author Graham Turner, and Professor Keith Ewing from the Institute of Employment Rights. In his talk, Keith reminded us that since 1997, affiliated trade unions had funded New Labour to the tune of £100m, but what had they got in return? (I know, I know!). He thought that there was a real danger that our movement was facing the same situation that unions faced in the early part of the 20th century, when following the Taff Vale judgement, they were held in law to be liable for any losses incurred by the employers as a result of industrial action taken by the workforce!

He cited a recent report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) which recalled its previous comments that taking industrial action in the UK was still a breach of contract at common law, and that members are only protected from common law consequences (i.e. dismissal) when strikes are held in contemplation of a trade dispute, which does not include secondary or sympathy action.

They had now asked the government what they would do to amend the existing law to broaden the scope of protection to workers who stage official and lawful industrial action. There was also serious concern that in certain cases, and because of some recent European Court judgements, employers could seek damages from unions taking industrial action which could bankrupt them! He suggested that our movement needed to mount a serious legal challenge to these recent developments using existing ILO reports and European Convention Rights supporting the freedom of association, such as under Convention No. 87.

Meanwhile any request from the ILO to government to review the existing inadequate UK legislation is likely to be ignored in the run-up to the election, and regardless of whoever wins (the Tories what even more restrictions on our right to strike) – well don’t hold your breath if Labour does get back in! As usual it will be for the movement to fight for every concession, which is why we have to keep up the pressure.

At the start of the second day of the NEC, we were told that NEC member Stephen Brookes had been taken ill overnight. The Council sent him their best wishes for a speedy recovery.

There will be more about the NEC meeting when I return from my holiday next week.

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