Most people have never heard of one of my political heroes. A civil servant, gentle and quiet, he died in retirement earlier this month. Graham Hughes, who I met in around 1985, at the Civil Service Club in Gloucester was a quiet and kind man with an office job at GCHQ, a place whose aim is to protect us from threats to our way of life, big or small. He was a man of principle though, and one day the Government offered him money to give up his right to be a member of a Trade Union. He and a number of his colleagues refused and their battle to restore those rights lead to their sacking and a ban on unions at GCHQ.
I was proud to campaign alongside Graham and the others- standing in the rain outside GCHQ, marching on the anniversary of the ban, striking to support their cause. Because their cause was mine, the right to belong to a Trade Union, to organise in the workplace and to strike – I knew that if the GCHQ ban succeeded then my workplace in the Ministry of Defence would be next.
After 18 years and the election of a Labour Government the ban was lifted and restorations made to the sacked workers although Graham was of retirement age and did not return to work. He passed away this month, a quiet hero and defender of our way of life.
Now, just over 30 years after the GCHQ ban, we see the TU Bill bought forward, an attack on the rights of all of us to organise and protect ourselves at work. Trade Unions have had a positive effect on our lives, winning the national minimum wage, improving workers’ safety, reducing the working week, gaining paid holidays and parental leave. Their opposition to the Bill is not just about strikes, which are at an all-time low, but may be needed as a last resort when employers refuse to negotiate. It is about people joining together to negotiate fairly and equally with their employers. Look at the junior doctors dispute, the refusal of Jeremy Hunt to negotiate is forcing them to threaten to strike – the Government should come to the negotiating table.
For individuals, Trade Unions are there when you need to be represented in a dispute or have been treated unfairly or bullied. They can help with fees and legal advice. They make workplaces safer – 142 people were killed at work in 2014/15.
Both staff and employers benefit from a constructive relationship between management and unions. The Government is seeking to undermine those relationships by undermining the unions ability to organise, for example, by setting thresholds for ballots which most elected politicians would fail to meet. Like so much this Government is doing it is an attack on our way of life, and on the rights of us all.
From the Tolpuddle Martyrs to the GCHQ Trade Unionists our rights to organise in the workplace have been hard won, we must continue the fight.