The Magpie takes on the Tories latest attacks on workers’ rights to organise in their latest column
The Tories have now published their much-trailed Trade Union Bill. It goes much further than their manifesto in restricting workers’ rights. Key elements are:
- All strikes will be unlawful without a 50% ballot turnout
- Strikes in health, education, fire, transport, border security and energy would be unlawful unless at least 40% of those eligible vote in favour
- Criminalising pickets if they are deemed “unlawful” or there are more than six. Require a named official to police the picketing
- Allowing employers to organise scabbing by hiring temporary replacement staff through agencies during strikes
- Ballot mandates to expire after four months
- Impose further restrictions on what must be on the ballot paper, which could limit workers’ flexibility of action during disputes
- Double the notice before strike action from seven days to fourteen
- Union members will have to individually “opt in” to the political levy, restricting unions ability to campaign (whether affiliated to Labour or not)
- Give the government the power to limit “facility time” for individual public sector union members
- Give the Certification Officer more powers to fine unions and audit their protests and pickets
Make no mistake, this is a major attack on workers’ right to resist. Given the very low levels of strikes in recent years, the Tories’ argument that this is about striking a “balance” between workers and employers is laughable. Many have pointed out the hypocrisy of Tory MPs backing ballot rules which if applied to parliamentary elections would have left the vast majority of seats empty.
The attack has three motivations. Firstly, there have been effective strikes by some groups of workers with strategic workplace power, such as London transport – though ironically these are so well organised that they would pass the new ballot thresholds. Secondly, the Tories plan such major attacks on working class people that they fear a backlash. Thirdly, changes in the law have an ideological impact, challenging the “legitimacy” of strike action in the public eye.
The official response from the unions has mainly taken three forms:
- Despair – linked to claims that the new thresholds are impossible to meet
- Political – hoping that Labour will reverse these laws, despite their failure to reverse previous ones
- Threatening to break the law
Some of the despairing responses have sought to paint the attack as even worse than it is (quite an achievement!) in order to justify inaction. For example, “unlawful” strike action is not “criminal”. The only new proposals for criminal sanctions are against pickets. We know that the police and courts already treated pickets as criminals when faced with big strikes – even when no such law existed in the 1980s.
A strike being “unlawful” merely means that it does not benefit from legal protection – a union which calls an unlawful strike can be sued for damages, and workers can legally be sacked for taking part. The working class in many countries and many periods, including in the UK, has had to rely on its collective power rather than the courts to protect members and unions from sanctions. The Tories are dramatically reducing the space for “legitimate” protest and resistance, but that doesn’t prevent workers taking action outside what the government legitimises. The danger for the government and employers is that once workers have stepped outside the legal framework, they are free to adopt the most effective tactics, rather than jumping through the legal hoops.
The highest profile threats to break the law have come from Unite, whose Rules Conference this month remove the words “as far as may be lawful” from its objectives in the union’s rulebook. Len McCluskey gave a powerful speech arguing why it is right to break unjust laws – even when passed by an elected government. Although as union leaders’ havent called much action when it was legal, we shouldnt hold our breath for them calling mass unlawful action.
Whether workers attempt to comply with the balloting thresholds, or decide to take unlawful action, they will require strong workplace organisation, not just rhetoric. The state of Illinois attempted to stop Chicago teachers striking by introducing a 75% ballot threshold, which they believed was impossible. Chicago teachers organised effectively and responded in 2012 with a 98% strike vote on a 92% turnout. It is true that they didn’t face the same postal ballot rules as UK workers, but there are examples here of similar results. In 2009 British Airways cabin crew achieved a strike vote of 81% on a turnout of around 79%. Strong organisation overcame difficulties few other groups of workers face – they were scattered across the world and teams changed all the time. We need the kind of strong workplace organisation that allows workers to choose tactically whether to comply with the legislation and beat the thresholds, or to defy the law. There are no shortcuts.
The movement should also be discussing how to work around some of the restrictions. For example, if unions are to be restricted in terms of pickets and protests, can workers get involved with other local bodies which could formally call protests outside workplaces?
Can workers build up their own strike funds, independent of their unions, so that they are better able to resist the courts attempts to get union officials to police their actions? Can we establish networks and habits of solidarity to achieve the same effect?
At the heart of our response needs to be the notion that to win, we have to be able to inflict disruption on our opponents that has greater cost than giving us what we want. Fourteen days notice and the ability to hire scabs through agencies are designed to reduce the disruption cost of strikes. Where strikes involve a high proportion of a workforce and at least some of the workers are harder to replace, the agency threat is less potent.
We need to win the argument amongst workers that our action and tactics should be based on what is most effective, not on rules set by our enemies. We need to prepare seriously, and make the Tories regret ever having introduced this legislation.