Paul Foot

Offensive to the bullies

(5 April 1977)

From Socialist Worker, No.1539, 5 April 1977, p.11.
Copyright © Estate of Paul Foot. Published on MIA with the permission of the Estate. Paul Foot Internet Archive ( 2005.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

“BLAIR GOES on offensive over trade unions”. The headline in the Times on Monday shouted out from the newsagent’s and I seized the papers eagerly.

“Blair goes on offensive” seemed amazing enough, but on the trade union issue – well, at last, thank heavens, what a relief.

Two days previously the Tories had let loose a great weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth over Labour’s promise to bring in a law to enforce trade union representation in any workplace where the majority of workers vote for it. This was a clear unequivocal pledge made by Blair himself at the 1995 Labour Party conference and repeated, a little shamefacedly, at the start of this election campaign.

The pledge in no way makes up for the eight anti-union laws passed by the Tories since 1979. In no way does it provide the unions with legal backing for the sort of strength they have used in the past. But neither is it meaningless.

The menace of derecognition which has swept through so much of industry leaves workers utterly defenceless.

Where there is no union the Thatcherite chargehand who believes that by some divine right he is empowered to lord it over the workers reigns supreme.

A trade union with proper negotiating rights enables the workers to collect together in places and at meetings from which the boss is excluded, and makes it far easier for them to discuss and take action to preserve not only their pay and conditions but their basic dignities as human beings.

Come squawking

Blair’s 1995 pledge promised the force of law to such union organisation at the point of production. Passed into law, the proposal would enormously increase the confidence of workers and cut down the arrogance of the employers.

When Thatcher shrieked that the “bully boys” would now be let off the leash, she was talking about shop stewards and convenors. But to every worker in the country the expression “bully boys” means only one thing: the new management autocrats.

Why had Blair stuck to his pledge? Why had he not abandoned it with all the other pledges? No doubt because this one was the absolute minimum condition for the continued support of the trade unions. If Blair had dropped this small promise, he would have lost the union support he so badly needs.

So now, as the right wing press sniffed an “issue” with which they could attack the Labour Party, as Thatcher had come squawking with anti-union hysteria into the election campaign, now precisely was the time for an “offensive” from the Labour leader in which he would stand up for the right to organise.

Then I read Blair’s Times article. As the sentences unfolded, the headline seemed to stand on its head. Blair’s “offensive” was not against the Tory union bashers – it was against the unions.

Blair pledges himself not to roll back Thatcher’s anti-union laws but to continue to uphold them. His government, he promised, would be the “most restrictive government against the unions in Europe”.

Not a clause of Thatcher’s anti-union laws would be repealed. The “scenes” at Grunwick, Wapping and the miners’ strike – scenes in which workers fought against overwhelming odds for their unions and their jobs – would, he promised, “never be seen again in this country”.

He did not (quite) renege on his promise, though he sought to water it down to zero. This is by far the most serious matter of the election campaign, and the whole trade union movement should unite to ensure that Blair sticks to what he said and introduces legal backing for workplace unionisation.


Last updated on 12.2.2005