The Attack on Labor Rights as Collective Human Rights in Great Britain

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This article is inspired by the book, Human Rights and Labor Solidarity: Trade Unions in the Global Economy. This text was written by a former undergraduate student of mine, Susan Kang, who is now a professor of political science at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York.  Kang offers a comparative study of labor rights and struggles in South Korea, Great Britain, and the Canadian Province of British Columbia, and the responses of  international human rights agreements and institutions.

I am particularly interested in the the way in which the “New Labour” party of former British Prime Minister Tony dealt with labor rights and with the involvement of the major European human rights agreements and institutions.

Old Labour

At its inception, the British Labour Party had three major segments, The Trade Union Congress (TUC), the cooperative movement, and the party’s members of parliament (MPs).  In terms of membership, the trade union movement was the most numerous, and for a while, a good number of the Labour MPs came from there.  Gradually, however, most of the Labour parliamentary seats were filled by middle-class politicians without backgrounds in the labor movement.

In the immediate post-World War II era, the parliamentary segment gave strong support to the labor unions which were conducting numerous strikes in areas such as coal mining (which had been nationalized by Labour in 1946) and transport (some of which had been nationalized as far back as the 1930s).  Many British citizens sympathized with the strikers. However, there was a strong backlash against militant labor action that hurt the Labour Party. This helped propel conservative Margaret Thatcher into the prime ministership in 1979. She campaigned on privatization of almost everything and breaking the power of the unions.

The Thatcher “Revolution”

Thatcher, who became known as The Iron Lady, immediately set out to weaken collective bargaining.  She argued that it damaged economic efficiency and growth, and that there needed to be greater labor “flexibility.”  She wanted employers to be able to engage workers in one-to-one contracts instead. The issue came to a head in 1992 in two court cases.  The Wilson case dealt with the Daily Mail, which backed the Conservative Party, refusing to give the same raise to unionized employees that it was offering to employees willing to enter into individual contracts. The paper agreed to meet with the union over health and safety issues, but not wages. As Kang points out, this was by no means the only sector in which employers were using this tactic. Associated British Ports was doing the same thing with Rail,  Maritime, and Transport affiliated  workers.

When both the newspaper unions and the transport unions brought cases against the employers to the British Employment Appeal Tribunal, it ruled against them on at least two union-devastating grounds. First, they found that the employers’ actions did not constitute illegal union-busting because the unions could still advocate on behalf of the workers on other issues, like health and safety.  This undercut the traditional, if not the fundamental, understanding that remuneration is the central element in collective bargaining. Second, the Tribunal found that the motivation of the employers was not to bust unions, but to enhance productivity and efficiency. They saw the negative effect on unions as simply a by-product of the employers’ primary goal.

Like so-called “right-to-work” laws in many U.S. states, the goal of the Conservatives was to break labor solidarity by showing that there is no economic advantage to joining unions.  In effect, the Tribunal’s ruling, sustained on appeal, meant that there was no statutory right for union representation on wage issues.  In 1993, the Conservative government went even further by enacting the Ullswater Amendment to the trade Union Reform and Employment Act.  Quoting Kang:

The Amendment altered Section 146 (which protected workers from action short of dismissal for trade union membership and related activities), allowing employers to engage in action as long as the employer’s purpose was ‘to further a change in his relationship with all or any class of his  employees.’

Again, the criterion for judging the actions of employers vis-a-vis workers and their unions was not the effect on labor, but the primary intention of the employer.  In 1995, when this was appealed to the Law Lords, the British equivalent to the U.S. Supreme Court, it was sustained.

New Labour

One who knows very little about British politics might have thought  that there would be a huge difference if the Labour Party could win a majority in the Parliament.  This was not the case.  Tony Blair played a double game when Labour won in 1977.  He went out of his way to woo Rupert Murdoch, the extremely powerful right-wing newspaper magnate, by assuring him that he was against strikes and  “unreasonable” wage demands,  and his government supported individual contracts with employers if they were not coercive. Kang quotes Labour Minister Lord McIntosh, “’the right to belong to a trade union is separate from any rights to collective bargaining…the existing law makes that distinction and we wish to preserve it.’” One thing that did differentiate New Labour from the Conservative Party was their desire to be fully integrated with the workings of the European Union, with the one exception of currency.  It wanted to keep the British pound, but it reversed the Conservative’s opting out of the European Social Chapter that guaranteed an extensive array of rights, including labor  rights, to citizens of countries that ratified it.

Left holding the bag by the so-called Labour Party, the trade union movement (TUC) had only one move left;  reach out for international support. With Britain now within the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, the trade union movement could address rights claims on the basis of both the Social Chapter and the much earlier (1953) European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Doing so forced the Labour government to enact a 2004 Employment Relations act that gave more power  to individual workers vis-à-vis employers, BUT still kept the labor unions at bay by retaining the “sole or main purpose” rationale for employers to refuse to bargain with a union and excluded collective bargaining when it defined “union services.”


Today, New Labour continues to differentiate itself from the continental countries of the European Union by refusing to recognize the right of bargaining collectively as an essential right of the collectivity called the trade union.  In insisting that human rights can be possessed only by individuals, it comes much closer to the mind-sets of those who push for so-called “right to work” laws in the United States.  However, in the U.S., there is little international leverage available to workers because our government is not subject to the European conventions or Court of Human Rights, has not ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and has bound itself to very few of the rules adopted by the International Labor Organization designed to protect workers. In our own struggles to advance the rights of workers in the U.S., perhaps we should be pushing for U.S. ratification of the International Covenant and signing on to more of the ILO’s list of basic labor rights.  At a minimum, that would make the U.S. public aware of how far we too are from some widely accepted international norms.


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