Even before the election of the Tories – by a mere 24% of registered UK voters – Britain boasted the reprehensible record of having some of the most repressive anti-worker, anti-union laws in the western world. Now David Cameron and his Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, have declared a war on workers’ rights that exceeds even the worst assaults the hated Maggie Thatcher dared impose.
Their Trade Union Bill – and three accompanying so-called ‘consultations’ designed to add an additional dose of repression to existing laws without having to pass primary legislation – are potentially the biggest threat to rights at work in at least 50 years, and possibly since the infamous Taff Vale Act of 1901.
The latter came about in the wake of powerful collective action by railway workers, but was aimed at crushing the power of all unions to function, by making them liable for any loss of profits caused by a strike. It triggered a wave of strikes and the formation of what became the Labour Party, to give workers a political arm to fight with. Waves of united action won repeal of the Taff Vale Act in 1906.
Thatcher’s Acts – Kept By Labour
Fast forward to the 1980s, where Thatcher’s Tory regime imposed six major anti-union Acts. They were a coldly calculated reaction to the growth of workers’ militancy in the 1970s and early 1980s, when millions took collective action to defend themselves and their communities from a concerted onslaught by successive governments seeking to restore the profit margins of the capitalist minority.
Thatcher’s laws – which are intact to this day, left undisturbed by the 13 years of Labour in government – throw up multiple obstacles to the functioning of unions as a defence force for workers.
They insist on secret postal ballots (with full media interference on behalf of the employers) prior to any industrial action, rather than the fulsome debate of workers mass meetings and a vote on the spot. They incorporate the legal requirement to give employers at least 7 days notice of a ballot and another 7 days notice of any industrial action arising from a ballot.
They tightly restrict the definition of a trade dispute, banning ‘secondary’ solidarity strikes or any deemed ‘political’, such as against privatization.
They include multiple legal hurdles on the wording and conduct of industrial action ballots, which employers’ lawyers have crawled all over for years, winning numerous injunctions in the Courts to outlaw democratically agreed strikes.
They make unions prey to seizure of their funds and assets, which has made many union leaders quivering wrecks in the face of demands by members to take action when it’s the only means of self-defence.
Union Weakness Invites Tory Aggression
But now we witness the ultimate paradox; the terrible consequences for workers of the failure of the majority of union leaderships to resist and defy this legal straitjacket for decades. The subsequent weakening of the trade union movement means the state and employers feel far less need to accommodate the unions than if they’d put up a concerted fight. The TUC and individual unions’ readiness to embrace ‘social partnership’ with the employers, instead of independently standing up for workers’ rights and distinctive class interests, has reduced the employers’ need for social partnership!
They instead feel confident in resorting to brutal, undisguised class warfare. Not because there’s been a massive wave of strikes, as the Tories try to tell the more gullible population in their ‘justifications’ for their new Trade Union Bill; last year saw 788,000 days of strike action across the whole of the UK, which was a rise compared to recent years, but on a puny scale compared with the 11.9 million strike days in the 1980s.
No, this new onslaught is born of a recognition that the unions – with 6.5 million members in Britain, 630,000 in Scotland alone – still represents a powerful foe as the Tories plunge the knife into benefits, jobs, services and pay… provided union leaders stop pussy-footing around with empty rhetoric and apply themselves to a coordinated plan of action to halt austerity.
So the Tory Trade Union Bill is not the result of some public clamour for action against already-existing strikes and protests by organized workers, but rather a savage attempt to cut off that path to working class people who are increasingly furious at the poverty and inequality we face.
The measures included in their Bill and accompanying ‘consultations’ are a full-frontal assault on the human and democratic rights of working class people, and indeed in breach of various European Court of Human Rights articles – which is a core reason the Tories aim to scrap the Human Rights Act of 1998, and seek to negotiate Britain’s exclusion from many European legal directives.
In flagrant breach of ECHR rulings that “only the votes cast should count”, the Tory Bill insists on a threshold of at least 50% of all who are eligible to vote in any union ballot for action. So those abstaining are counted as a vote against the action.
In a move that goes even further in its attacks on democracy than even those mentioned in the Tory manifesto or subsequent Queen’s Speech, they insist on another hurdle of 40% of all those eligible having to vote for the action in the case of what is now dubbed “important public services”. This adds to their original list of “essential public services”, so it now includes workers in health, transport, education (of all those aged up to 17), fire services, border security and nuclear decommissioning and waste disposal. A pernicious added clause includes workers who are ancillary to such “important public services”.
So for the millions thus affected, it’s not enough to get a majority of the votes cast, but it must also be at least 40% of all the members eligible to vote, regardless of whether many of them abstained.
This ballot rigging is from a Business Secretary elected by only 38% of his local electorate; in a parliament with 331 MPs elected without a majority; by a Cabinet whose number would be cut by half, and the number of Tory MPs would drop by 270, if they’d had to win the 50% and 40% votes they now want to impose on workers and their unions.
The only other countries with similar outrageous barriers in ballots on the right to strike are Bulgaria and Romania – states not frequently quoted as a model for progress by the Tories!
Legal Minefield & Army of Strike-Breakers
But those outrageous ‘high hurdles’ are just the start of the effrontery to the free functioning of unions in the Bill.
Ballot forms will have to give “reasonably clear details of the matters in issue in the trade dispute” (so bosses’ lawyers can challenge whether they are ‘reasonably clear’); “the types of industrial action” when it’s not a strike (again, a recipe for legal challenges compared with the current ‘action short of strike action’); and “the period or periods within which action is expected to take place” (so employers can plan to undermine its effectiveness, and legally challenge it if dates change because the situation demands tactical changes – and in any case, how in hell are unions expected to know the exact dates of action well over a month beforehand?).
Instead of giving 7 days’ notice to employers, 14 days’ notice will now be required; again, binding unionised labour in a straitjacket, and giving bosses ample time to plan counter-measures. Among the latter options will be the hiring of Agency workers to do strikers’ jobs, as the Tories plan to scrap the ban on that which has been in place since 1973 – including right through Thatcher’s years!
So they are arming employers with a legal minefield to stop action, and an army of vulnerable Agency workers issued the choice of ‘scab or be sacked’.
Orwellian Police Regime
If, despite all this, a strike goes ahead, new laws on picketing aim to criminalize workers with the courage to fight back. The current Code of Conduct on picketing that limits it to six will become a law, so any more than that would be committing a criminal offense. So the more popular a strike, and the bigger the show of support on a picket line, the larger the number of workers to be branded criminals!
Unions are to be legally obliged to have a Picket Supervisor, named to the police, with a badge or other ID, always either on or near the picket line, and in possession of a letter to produce to the police “or any other person who reasonably asks”. An outrageous intrusion on the privacy and civil rights of union activists, and a trampling on the autonomy of unions.
Unions will have to inform the government of pickets and protests in advance, and “whether there will be loudspeakers, props, banners, etc”!
And contrary to the loaded language of the Tories’ ‘Consultation on Intimidation of Non-Striking Workers’, these police-measures are not aimed at some rash of threats by pickets in the past. In fact, they set up the 2014 Carr Inquiry to try and find some evidence of this, to justify themselves, but none was found!
It’s purely to intimidate workers into not exercising the right to withdraw their labour – a right that should be enshrined in any democracy’s constitution. On top of that, they are ‘consulting’ on a new criminal offence of ‘intimidation on picket lines’.
In a further Orwellian outrage, unions will have to give 14 days’ notice of intent to use social media during industrial action, and “what blogs and websites will set out”, or face fines.
Local authorities are expected to use Community Protection Notices against protesters – a measure aimed at successful pressure campaigns in support of workers in struggle.
Interference in Union Affairs
A whole raft of other measures likewise not only seek to effectively abolish the right to strike, but are a gross invasion of the internal democracy of unions, and of union reps ability to actually represent members at work.
Public sector employers will be forced to account in minute detail for every hour of union facility time granted to the elected union reps, every penny in wages paid to them, and the government will accrue the power to overrule agreements between such employers and unions, with the power to stop all facility time for union reps. And this will not only apply to shop stewards/reps, but also Learning Reps and Health & Safety reps.
The trade union Certification Officer is to be granted vast new powers to interfere in union affairs – even when not a single member has complained or demanded intervention. These include membership registers; union elections; ballots on mergers; political funds and rules; power to demand handover of union documents; and to question union staff and officers. All on pain of a £20,000 fine for failure to fully comply. All the entire policing exercise on behalf of the state is to be funded by a special levy on the unions!
Attacks Require Defiant Action
This battery of new measures is a cataclysmic attack on the right to be in a union that is in any way effective as a collective defence of workers’ rights and conditions; the right to strike; the right to free speech and freedom of association.
Those union and Labour leaders who spent two years telling workers to vote against Scottish independence and wait for ‘justice with Labour’ have a lot to answer for. But waiting for independence is not an option either, given the scale of wipeout of workers’ rights we face here and now.
Urgent, immediate action in confrontation with the Tories, combined with a clear vision of an alternative future, is the order of the day.
The Tories’ bogus ‘consultation’ ends in early September, followed by a second reading of the Trade Union Bill.
The TUC has promised a day of action when that debate in Westminster happens, and a demo at the Tory party conference on 4 October.
Each trade union, the STUC and TUC need to act with utmost urgency, calling meetings and forums of trade unionists to arm them with the facts, motivate them into taking action with a harsh warning of what is threatened.
They should call a genuine day of action as an opening salvo, with strikes and rallies in every region or city, appealing not only to those workers most immediately in the firing line – those in ‘important public services’ – but all trade union members, and indeed non-unionised workers, such as Agency staff, who face the horrendous choice of being ordered to cross picket lines to undermine fellow-workers’ jobs and conditions, or lose their own job.
Defy Anti-Union Laws!
Such strikes would often be in defiance of existing anti-union laws, let alone the new additional repressive measures being grafted onto them; so be it! Unless union leaderships have the courage to take such action, the Tories will continue to feel emboldened into pursuing their dictatorial measures against workers. And unless such a lead is given, workers will lack belief in the ability of the movement to defy and defeat the Tories.
On the other hand, bold united action would win widespread support and involvement from working class people not yet even in a union. They need a vehicle to resist austerity.
Scrap All the Repressive Laws
In fighting to kill off the Bill, the trade union movement and its allies need to make two other things crystal clear: a readiness to defy the Bill’s measures even if the Tories ignore opposition and implement it; and a call not only to Kill the Bill, but also to repeal the entire package of already-existing anti-union laws that these new measures are being grafted onto.
It’s widespread failure by most union leaders to defy the previous 30 years of anti-union laws that has emboldened Cameron et al. In contrast, those groups of workers who have defied these laws have always won huge concessions e.g. oil refinery construction workers.
Devolve to Dissolve!
The battle to confront and finish off the Bill should be combined with the demand for power over employment laws to be devolved to the Scottish parliament. That will unify workers who voted Yes and No in the Referendum. It points to an escape route from Tory Westminster dictatorship. And whilst the SNP leadership have never once publicly pledged to repeal the anti-union laws – the most vicious in the western world – the unions have the potential power to pound Holyrood into travelling that road, with the demand for a Charter of Workers’ Rights to be ushered in as an example to the rest of the UK and beyond.
That’s what the Scottish Socialist Party has consistently fought for. That’s what the 630,000-strong trade union movement in Scotland needs to take decisive action in pursuit of.