Not satisfied with the raft of anti-union laws introduced during the Thatcher government of the 1980s, employers’ organisation the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) wants the coalition government to push even further.

Richard Lambert director-general of the CBIIt is lobbying the Tories for changes to employment law and rules on strike ballots. Employers, nervous about the potential for growing industrial unrest in response to cuts, want to change the rules on how many trade union members need to vote for strike action before a strike can proceed.

They want 40% of all those balloted to vote for action before it can be considered legitimate. So an overwhelming majority for action could be regarded as insufficient because the turnout isn’t up to the CBI’s exacting standards. Strange how these standards aren’t applied to parliamentary, local or any other elections. If they were, very few people seeking to be our elected representatives would ever gain a mandate.

It is even more hypocritical when we recall that employers need no democratic mandate whatsoever before laying off workers, slashing pay and pensions, or attacking working conditions. No consultation or ballot is required. It’s one rule for organised labour, (representing the interests of the majority), quite another for capital (representing the interests of a small minority).

The bosses’ organisation also wants increased rights to recruit agency staff as strikebreakers, employing workers who are typically financially insecure and frequently desperate for even low-paid work, when the regular workforce takes strike action. Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of Unite, highlights this aspect of the proposals:

“Agency workers are already mistreated by employers and used to undercut wages. They need equal treatment, not employers further misusing them to prolong industrial disputes.”

Legislation is already stacked against the unions, but the ruling class wants to further erode the capacity of millions of working class people to protect their pay and conditions.

The CBI wants the employer’s views to be circulated – along with the union’s position – to all those being balloted for action. This would be an extraordinary imposition on the internal workings of the unions. It also calls for increased powers to counteract unofficial action and says the notice period for industrial action should increase from 7 days to 14 days – apparently employers deserve more time to prepare for strikes.

This is in the context of increasing anxiety about the unions inside the ruling class, stemming largely from fear of the storm that could greet savage austerity measures. It is anxiety that finds expresison in the media backlash against the unions’ role in electing Ed Miliband as leader of the Labour Party, defying the wishes of almost the entire mainstream media, including Labour-supporting Mirror newspaper, who hoped for a David Miliband victory.

It is linked to calls from many Tories for fresh attacks on the union movement, ahead of this month’s comprehensive spending review announcments, expected to prompt increased – and increasingly militant – trade union action. The Tories and the bosses still fear working class resistance.

Even the very moderate Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, has expressed strong opposition to any further legal changes. He says:

‘The CBI proposals are a fundamental attack on basic rights at work that are recognised in every human rights charter, and will be dismissed by any government with a commitment to civil liberties.’

The defence of trade union rights is a priority for all of us. As the resistance to ConDem cuts grows, we will increasingly face attacks on our right to mount opposition. The defence – and indeed extension – of workers’ rights will be fought for in the context of building a mass movement, in workplaces and communities across the country, to the biggest attack on the working class in living memory.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).