Times change. Not long ago Michael Foot was the uncrowned king of the parliamentary left with the Tribune group gathered round him. In the Labour Party his reputation was all liberty, equality and Up the Workers; to Conservatives he was a demon king aspiring to fearsome r-r-revolution. Nonsensical as all this was, few people could have imagined a day when The Times would have an editorial asking: “is Mr. Foot a fascist?” and finding the more relevant question to be: “does Mr. Foot know he is a fascist?”
The matter arose from the dismissal of six men from Ferrybridge Power Station. As members of a breakaway union, they were dismissed under a closed shop or one-union agreement. They were then refused unemployment benefit under the “misconduct” rule in the Social Security Act. The General Secretary of the Confederation of Employee Organizations wrote on their behalf to Foot, who is Secretary of State for Employment; and Foot’s reply stated that he found nothing wrong with the procedure:
A person who declines to fall in with new conditions of employment which result from a collective agreement may well be considered to have brought about his dismissal. The consequences of his refusal in terms both of loss of his job and of his possible ineligibility for unemployment benefit must be taken into account by the individual when he decides not to accept his revised conditions of employment.
The cries from The Times and Conservative MPS that this is a suppression of liberty are miserable hypocrisy, of course. Under the last Conservative government it was proposed to try to deal with strikes by refusing Social Security benefits to strikers and their families. The “misconduct” rule has been applied in the past to obtain conformity with government policies: during the last war employees who refused, for instance, to fire-watch at night in their employers’ premises were dismissed and refused unemployment pay. There is a further parallel with the war. The Minister of Labour then was Ernest Bevin, chosen because his standing with trade-unionists would make them more amenable to government discipline, and the “libertarian” Foot occupies the same position now when Labour-run capitalism wants extra sacrifices from the workers.
The Labour Party’s promise in 1972 to repeal the 1971 Industrial Relations Act included an undertaking to bring back the closed shop, which had been made illegal by the Act. This was done in the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act, 1974, with “safeguard” provisions on the lines proposed in Labour’s document In Place of Strife (1969):
Nevertheless the Commission recognized that the closed shop was liable from time to time to cause injustice to individuals and it therefore proposed safeguards . . . to protect the trade union member; it is also necessary to consider those who have conscientious grounds for not joining a union and who are dismissed from their employment in consequence.
The principal safeguard was the right of appeal to an industrial tribunal, which would have the power to award compensation for unfair dismissal. Foot is now bringing before Parliament an amendment to the 1974 Act which, if passed, will repeal the safeguard provisions. Thus, under Michael Foot, a worker who declines to join a specified union may now find himself unemployed and not even on the dole.
While The Times expresses its view about democracy, there is something more important to be said: it shows Foot to be — as we have always known — an anti-Socialist. Socialists recognize and uphold the necessity for all workers to organize to protect their wages and conditions. Far from being an instrument in that continuing struggle, the closed shop works against it. Its basic principle is that of the “wages league”, the desire of craft workers to maintain wages superior to other workers’ and hold at bay any threat of undercutting by less skilled sections.
The classic argument for the closed shop is that, when trade unions in a particular industry have obtained gains in pay and conditions, all those who reap the gains should contribute a union subscription. What can be pointed out at once is that there are advantages also for the employers. The legitimacy of the closed shop, established in 1942, was to a considerable extent produced by capitalists’ own litigation; in Trade Unions and the Law (1968) Gerald Abrahams names several cases which contributed to it. During the period 1971-74 when closed shops were illegal, in the industries where they were long-established they continued through special arrangements between unions and employers. As an extension of this, can it be said that it is in the interests of workers to have their leaders promise “wage restraint” in exchange for legislation which makes official what they are doing anyway? Or that unwilling members are of any use to any organization?
Workers should look carefully at what is happening. The Times blames Foot alone. As the former Labour minister Lord George-Brown pointed out in a letter to The Times on 5th December, “it must be assumed of course that Mr. Foot has the passive acquiescence, if not the active encouragement, of all of his Cabinet colleagues”. It has been shown repeatedly that workers in trade unions will accept and rationalize from Labour governments what they would not wear from the other parties.
They may be ready to create fury against the manipulation of unemployment benefits as a means of getting compliance, and then be placated by the thought that if it is for closed shops and ticked by Michael Foot it is probably all right. Let them consider that the closed shop is divisive and privilege seeking; and that Foot, however he has talked in his time, is a government minister whose concern is to help capitalism out of trouble.