Labour Party conference, joint fringe by IER and Campaign for Trade Union Freedom.

24 September 2014 Tony Burke, Assistant General Secretary of UNITE and Chair of the Campaign for Trade Unions Freedom Speaking at the joint fringe by IER and Campaign for Trade Union Freedom at the Labour Party conference, Tony Burke outlined his fears about TTIP, the abandoned Carr report and what unions want to see from a Labour Government.

Commentary icon24 Sep 2014|Comment

24 September 2014

Tony Burke, Assistant General Secretary of UNITE and Chair of the Campaign for Trade Unions Freedom

Speaking at the joint fringe by IER and Campaign for Trade Union Freedom at the Labour Party conference, Tony Burke outlined his fears about TTIP, the abandoned Carr report and what unions want to see from a Labour Government.

John Hendy does a wonderful job making the link between CETA, Viking and Laval and the overarching legal presumption in favour of business.

And while the theme of IER and CTUF’s recent work has focused on outlining a post-election agenda, these free trade deals may be signed before May next year.

It is our contention that the so-called free trade treaty – TTIP – being secretly negotiated between the EU and the US, represents a massive grab for wealth and power by the corporate sector – it is turbocharged capitalism!

Dealing particularly with labour rights, earlier this year the General Secretaries of the ETUC and the AFLCIO issued a joint statement arguing that if TTIP doesn’t work for people then it won’t work at all.

And the Americans should know. When the NAFTA free trade agreement was signed there was mass migration of American manufacturing to the maquiladora, south of the border in Mexico.

However, there are real problems with developing a common narrative on labour rights.

In the US half of the states are ‘right to work’ states – in other words, they try to be union free and strike free and they have legal support for this. Our American colleagues are looking for TTIP to extend to the US Euro-style rights to information and consultation.

It remains a moot point however, if the labour chapter of a treaty would have universal applicability in all 50 states …

… and our good friend Ben Davis from the USW said at the TUC fringe on TTIP that the US would not ratify the ILO core conventions ‘in our lifetime’.

There is a big question about the applicability of any labour rights chapter because the experience of other free trade treaties is that the labour rights chapter inevitably gets relegated to the back of the treaty to a non-binding appendix.

And in any event, a large majority of US Republicans in Congress have said that if TTIP is used to smuggle in Euro style labour rights to the US they will vote against it.

From our own, European perspective there are serious issues on labour rights – the European Commission has said that it will take as its starting point the core ILO standards.

This would be a great step forward for workers in many jurisdictions in the EU, not just the UK but also in the former socialist states of eastern and central Europe.

But looking at this just from the UK – how likely is that David Cameron would sign up to a treaty that gave to British workers and their unions enforceable rights as per ILO standards? Remember the last Tory Government under Mrs Thatcher very deliberately, but without renouncing the Conventions, took the UK workers out of such protection.

It seems to us that the enforceable labour rights issue is a red herring – it’s undeliverable – which coupled with the huge grab for power by the corporate sector has led Unite and the TUC to move to a position of opposing TTIP, root and branch.

Another issue that had the potential to inflict great legal damage on the unions is the Carr Report.

In the aftermath of Unite’s dispute with Ineos at Grangemouth the Government announced it was setting up an inquiry, led by Bruce Carr QC (who had acted for British Airways against Unite), into the conduct of industrial disputes.

The Carr Inquiry received no support from trade unions and only patchy support from employers.

The terms of reference of the Carr Inquiry were to provide an assessment of the:

  • alleged use of extreme tactics in industrial disputes, including so-called ‘leverage’ tactics; and the
  • effectiveness of the existing legal framework to prevent inappropriate or intimidatory actions in trade disputes.

In advance of Carr reporting, the Prime Minster announced in May 2014 that new restrictions will be introduced on strikes in `essential’ services if the Conservatives were to win the 2015 general election.

The Conservatives said that they would seek to legislate in two areas:

  • that there should be a threshold for the turnout in an industrial action ballot that must be reached; and,
  • placing a time limit on the legality of a mandate a union has to call industrial action.

In August, clearly worried by these pre-emptive policy announcements made by the Conservatives on how they were to legislate against the unions after the next General Election, Bruce Carr threw in the towel and said he would be making no recommendations.

The Carr Review has been a shambles and last week Frances O’Grady wrote to the PAC demanding an investigation into how much this waste of time has cost the public purse.

In the run up to the General Election the TUC has set out a four point campaign – Respect at Work – on employment rights that it hopes will inform the debate. The four elements are:

  • stemming the tide of casualisation – including ending the abuse of zero hour contracts and, equal pay for agency workers
  • abolition of Employment Tribunal fees
  • a new framework of employment rights – including reversal of the coalition attack on statutory redundancy and TUPE and, unfair dismissal protection from day one
  • improved worker voice – including promotion of collective bargaining, better information and consultation rights and, worker directors.

It’s this last point that the Campaign and the Institute are most excited about and look forward to developing ideas for legislation in the months to come.

Tony Burke

Tony Burke is President of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions CSEU and chair of the Campaign For Trade... Read more »