On the 90th anniversary, we should remember the start of the Nazi crackdown on trade unions

London May Day rally 2023 organised by trade unions
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The Trades Union Congress (TUC) sent out a message on the 90th anniversary of the Nazi’s repression of trade unions. In the release, the TUC called for “solidarity across civil society in defence of democracy and against racism and extremism”. This anniversary comes as governments around the world further erode workers’ rights – not least here in the UK.

Worker suppression

The message from the TUC reads:

On 2 May 1933 – ninety years ago today (Tuesday) – trade union buildings across Germany were raided and seized by Nazi stormtroopers.

Free trade unions were banned. Many trade union leaders were arrested, some were tortured, and some did not survive imprisonment in concentration camps in the years that followed.

Independent trade unions were replaced with a Nazi-controlled German Labour Front, which served as a propaganda tool for the regime and its hate-filled antisemitic ideology.

Trade unions are a bastion of democracy and freedom against authoritarian and violent regimes

The TUC adds that it “encourages alliances between trade unions and other parts of civil society to counter the far right”. As part of that, the union “provides training and resources for union reps and leaders to counter racism, including antisemitism, and to counter attempts by the far right to recruit in workplaces”.

Read on...

Persecution of trade unionists today

The TUC points out that repression of workers and organised labour continues to this day:

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) global rights index monitors the denial of workers’ rights and trade union freedoms, and the persecution and murder of trade unionists.

In 2022 trade unionists were killed in thirteen countries, and workers were exposed to violence in 50 countries.

Trade union suppression often occurs under the same regimes as racially targeted violence by state forces or paramilitary forces. In recent years this has included Colombia, Brazil and Myanmar.

TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said:

Trade unions promote democracy in the workplace and beyond. That makes us a target for authoritarian regimes. When we come under attack it is a sign that democratic government is in danger too.

Ninety years on from the Nazis banning trade unions, there are lessons for us today. Solidarity matters not only within trade unions. We must build out alliances across civil society to counter antisemitism and racism in all its forms. And we must actively organise against attempts by the far right and other extremists to spread their hate-filled ideology.

Workers’ rights in the UK

In the UK, the Tory government has been pursuing a controversial anti-strike bill. The ‘Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Billwould seriously restrict workers’ right to take strike action. Among its critics are European trade unions who argued that the legislation would ‘drag the UK further away from democratic norms’. In March, a parliamentary committee made up of MPs and lords slammed the bill “for failing to meet human rights obligations”. At the time, TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said:

MPs, Lords and civil liberties groups are queuing up to condemn this draconian Bill. These spiteful new laws are an affront to human rights and are a deliberate attempt to restrict the right to strike – a fundamental British liberty.

The government is steamrolling through parliament legislation that will give ministers sweeping new powers to sack workers who take action to win better pay and conditions. The Conservatives are trying to keep people in the dark. But make no mistake – this Bill is undemocratic, unworkable and almost certainly illegal. And crucially it will likely poison industrial relations and exacerbate disputes rather than help resolve them.

This nasty Bill should be junked immediately.

The bill recently suffered a defeat in the House of Lords – specifically the rejection of a “controversial clause” which could have seen nurses fired for voting to strike. As Nursing Times reported:

Amendment four ensured that failure to comply with a work notice from an employer was “not be regarded as a breach of contract” [sic] and would “not constitute lawful grounds for dismissal”.

During the debate Baroness Fraces O’Grady, who supported the change, said: “This amendment would ensure that an individual employee named in a work notice cannot be sacked or sanctioned if they do not comply.

“In short, it would avoid the risk of a shameful and ultimately self-defeating spectacle of nurses and other key workers, whom not so long ago we all clapped, being sacked.”

Baroness O’Grady warned that without this amendment, individual workers who had lawfully voted for strike action would be “entered into a P45 lottery”.

She said: “Employers are given the power to effectively requisition individuals under threat of losing their livelihood.

“Most right-minded people find that disproportionate, dictatorial and fundamentally unfair.”

Trade unions in the courts

The government has also been seeking to stop strikes via the courts. As Steve Topple wrote for the Canary on 28 April:

In an outrageous last-minute legal challenge, health secretary Steve Barclay got a court to block the RCN strike on 2 May. This was part of a 48-hour action by the union – meaning nurses will now walk out for less time. The strike will start at 8:00pm on 30 April and end at 11:59pm on 1 May.

Topple reported that RCN general secretary Pat Cullen “was fuming“, and that she said:

what an indictment on this government to do this to the very people that have held this NHS together, not just through the pandemic, but an NHS that has been run into the ground and in crisis, caused by this government.

Topple also noted “unavoidable questions over both Barclay’s and the RCN’s role in this drama”:

So, it’s 90 years since the Nazis began their clampdown on trade unions. It’s important today not to take for granted workers’ hard-won rights. The UK government is becoming increasingly authoritarian while, around the world, workers still face persecution and repression. Trade unions and workers’ rights are a bellweather of a fair and humane society – so we must defend them.

Featured image via JustAs It Is/YouTube

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