July 15 witnessed the first reading of the Tories’ new anti-union bill – effectively a series of amendments to the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act (1992).
The Trade Union Bill aims to make what Tony Blair once called “the most draconian anti-union laws in Europe”, harsher still. David Cameron’s “slip of the tongue,” in the Commons told the simple truth for once – it is an “anti-strike law.”
It makes the balloting procedure even more complex for getting a strike, it criminalises the picketing necessary to make it effective, and cuts the finances unions need to engage in political campaigning and representation. Last but not least it restricts the time available for union representatives to perform their duties of representing and protecting members in the workplace.
In short it is another measure of class injustice meant to tip the balance of power still further in favour of management and the bosses that own and control Britain today.
The right of workers to withdraw the labour that provides services and creates profits is the main weapon workers possess against the overwhelming power of the bosses. Without this we negotiate from a position of total weakness.
Whether in the private or public sector our employers own or control the workplaces and all its plant and its equipment – not us. They employ a huge management apparatus to control the workforce; they can call in the judges and the police to enforce their property rights.
They can fire us virtually with impunity and they cannot in the final analysis be compelled to take back workers wrongfully dismissed. Therefore the only protection for the individual worker faced with this huge concentrated social power of capital is collective action – ultimately to withdraw our labour.
Despite the fact that Britain now has a very low incidence of strikes compared to the 1980s – even in the public sector – these remain irksome to the employers and their government.The recent tube strike, precisely because it was so effective – was intolerable to them.
The public and ex-public sector remains a stronghold of trade unionism. Since the Tories are determined to massively reduce the welfare state, health and education or privatise and outsource them they need to break trade union resistance. Hence the law aimed at crippling strikes in “vital services”. The public sector now faces the equivalent of the 1980s onslaught.
The public sector has to a large degree escaped the decimation of its workforce and the smashing up of workplace union organisation that Thatcher achieved in the 1980s when she defeated steelworkers, miners, printers, dockers and car workers. But before she fought these battles she put in place laws that made effective picketing illegal, allowed the courts to impose devastating fines and the police to use brutal force against strikers.
We need to learn the lesson of the 1980s. Thatcher intimidated and divided the union leaderships and was able to pick striking unions off one by one. Of course rank and file trade unionists rallied to the support of their brothers and sisters. Without the strong network of miners’ support committees in 1984-5 the NUM would never have held out so long. But industrial action alongside the miners could have helped them win.
The Labour Party leaders shamefully stood aside (even condemning violence on the picket lines by workers) and when Labour was finally returned to power for thirteen years (1997-2010) it did next to nothing to free unions from the fetters that Thatcher had put them in. We need to rebuild strong workplace organisation, exert democratic control over our leaders, and act together. If we are united – not just in words but in action – then we will not be defeated.
The history of our movement in fighting anti-union laws is not just one of defeats. Ten years before Thatcher there is another experience of the the boss class’s attempt to shackle the unions. And it was one where they failed miserably. In 1969 it was Labour itself that tried to restrict the power of shop stewards with the In Place of Strife bill. The Communist Party initiated the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU) and massive protests were enough to force Labour to abandon the Bill. But in 1970 the Tories took up the attack with an Industrial Relations Bill.
Between December 1970 and March 1971 as the Bill made its way through Parliament the LCDTU called four successive “days of action” around the slogan ‘Kill the Bill’.They grew in numbers to one and a quarter million strikers. However the Bill became an Act, largely because the TUC itself would not call class-wide industrial action. But a series of prosecutions under the Act, most famously the London dockers’ shop stewards (the Pentonville Five) in 1972, led to a wave of unofficial action that eventually forced the TUC to threaten a general strike. The courts and the Tories retreated and the miners’ strike of 1974 finished off the Tories and the Industrial Relations Act. The lessons were that the power and initiative of rank and file workplace organisation, ready to defy the law and strike, could defeat a government.
Quite simply the only way to beat the Tories, the state and employers, is to bring onto the battlefield overwhelming numbers. We cannot rely on the top union leaders to organise or initiate this, through we should call on them to do so and support them wholeheartedly when they do. But the strength of the unions has always lain in the workplaces, in the working class communities. When we are weak there we will be weak everywhere.
We cannot kid ourselves that we already have the strength to score a quick victory. We have to rebuild our organisations. But this cannot be done in advance of a battle. The defence of trade union freedoms is a political struggle we need to bring all our organisations parties as well as trade unions into.
The measures outlined in the new bill include:
In key public services including health, education, fire, transport and energy sectors it would require a minimum 50 per cent turnout, with a 40 per cent vote in favour of action. This means abstentions would be counted as votes against and undermines the democratic principle of taking action by simple majority vote.
All unions, not just those affiliated to Labour, must ask each member to ‘opt-in’ to the political levy and then repeat the question every five years. The purpose is to rob Labour of funds from affiliated unions and will cripple other unions’ ability to run political campaigns.
Picketing the courts rule as ‘unlawful’ or ‘intimidating’ would become a criminal offence and new protections will be available for strike-breakers. Unions will be compelled to name an official to liaise with police and enforce the present practice of restriction to a maximum of six pickets.
Unions will be compelled to renew strike mandates with fresh ballots within four months.
Bosses will be given the right to hire agency staff as strike-breakers and the legal notice before the start of industrial action will be doubled from seven days to 14.
The government will be empowered to set a limit on the proportion of working time any public sector worker can spend on trade union duties.
The government certification officer will be given sweeping powers to fine trade unions up to £20,000 for breaches of reporting rules including an annual audit of pickets and protests. The certification officer will furthermore have the power to initiate investigations and will be funded by a joint levy of unions and employers.
A description of the trade dispute and the planned industrial action planned must be printed on every ballot paper. This will give the courts a further issues to declare ballots invalid on spurious technicalities.
The Right to Strike Campaign could not come at a better time.
It is vital that we support a campaign at the grassroots with affiliation from as many branches, and workplace organization as possible we need mass meetings to inform members about the attacks.
As the bill makes its way through parliament we will need militant ‘Kill the Bill’ marches, sieges of the House of Commons, all suitable forms of direct action. We should copy the LCDTU of the 1970s and build up to a series of days of action- where possible strike action.
Leaders like Len McCluskey have talked about the need to break the law ‘if necessary’.
We will certainly have to be prepared to do do if we are to stop this attempt to restrict the unions’ ability to take effective industrial action even further.
Pledges to defy the bill and the other laws should be promoted in every union. Media unions should begin an open campaign against the anti-union propaganda in the bosses’ media and demand free speech for trade unionists. A mass petition – with signatures gathered in the communities, the streets as well as the workplaces culminating a march on Parliament when it debates the final stages of the Bill could help to mobilise mass support and build up the trade union movement.
Of course we will need to call on the TUC and individual unions to call mass demonstrations and action up to and including a general strike to kill the bill. But our action must extend to repealing all the anti-union legislation and fighting for the Labour Party to table a Trade Union Rights Act in parliament.
Lastly, a successful campaign cannot simply be a defensive struggle against the Tory anti-union laws, but an offensive to unionise the millions of workers who need a trade union – especially those in the private sector, low paid, those on zero-hours contracts, etc.
We need to launch such a counterattack against the whole boss class that the Tories and their backers will wish they had never dared to impose this iniquitous bill.
Kill the bill – kick out the Tories!
Red Flag is a
socialist organisation campaigning within Labour for a democratically planned
and owned economy. We campaign for grassroots democracy in the labour movement,
militant defence of the oppressed and an anticapitalist programme for the
Labour Party. Against Brexit, for free movement. Anticapitalist and
If you enjoyed this article, please subscribe, donate or join.