Shoreditch graffiti from 2015. Photo: Flickr/Duncan C Shoreditch graffiti from 2015. Photo: Flickr/Duncan C

Lindsey German on the attack on the posties and women’s work

Striking in Britain is near illegal as is possible without it being formally outlawed. That is the only conclusion from yesterday’s High Court decision in favour of Royal Mail which voids the ballot for strike action by the CWU communications workers.

The ballot saw a 97% vote for strike action on a turnout of around three quarters of the membership.

This is a huge attack on the trade unions and makes it even harder to take effective action. The CWU ballot was exemplary in all respects – in its turnout and support for action but also because it was a mass event which involved large numbers of members and took the campaign away from the atomisation of people voting at home and made it more collective.

It is this which irked Royal Mail management so much and which led the court to the astonishing decision that the ballot was a workplace ballot and so contravened the law. This, if upheld, will allow Royal Mail to ride roughshod over workers’ rights and conditions.

The decision is one which will have profound consequences unless we fight back. It is also directly political and aimed at weakening a powerful and militant union. It can be compared to some of the main anti-union court judgments from the beginning of the 20th century, like Taff Vale and Osborne, which struck at the heart of the right to organise.

We should be clear just what is at stake here. The unelected judges are part of the ruling class in this country which is determined to hold on to its power and determined to crush any opposition. The communications workers should not have to fight this alone. They must have the support of every trade union from the TUC downwards. If this strike is illegal then it puts at risk the future of any effective industrial action.

This must be a central election issue. Already Labour has pledged the repeal of the iniquitous Trade Union Act 2016 which demands the 50% threshold which is a higher bar than any party standing in this election will have to overcome. The rest of the anti-union laws should go as well. They have had one aim only – to weaken the unions and to make collective action more difficult.

The right to strike is a democratic right which must be defended. The most effective way of doing this would be for the unions to take industrial action against these pernicious laws. Such action would show solidarity with the CWU but would also be the most elementary form of self-defence.

Labour must come out fighting in support of the unions. A Tory government would go even further down the road of weakening unions and forcing worse conditions on workers. There should now be uproar across the movement with protests and strike action. And every trade unionist should vote for Corbyn’s Labour as the best defence against these laws. But we must also take action.

The union will no doubt re-ballot. But why the hell should it? That pushes the strike into the New Year, after the Xmas period and after the election. Individual workers will be prey to the arguments of the mass media, universally hostile to strike action and unions. Now is the time to fight and everyone needs to get onside. And if that’s illegal then we need to break the law.

Women’s work really is never done

Let’s look at working conditions in present-day Britain with its draconian laws and weakened unions. Today is equal pay day – the day when women effectively stop being paid until the end of the year because of the disparity between their pay and men’s. How is it that employers keep getting away with it? Women are a mass workforce obtained on the cheap. And they have entered the workforce in large numbers precisely at the time when the unions were in decline.

A fascinating new piece of research about work published this week is not getting the publicity it deserves – no doubt because it contradicts the various fairy tales told by the government about the state of the British labour market. The research by the Resolution Foundation shows that the number of people working – now at extremely high levels – is not down to flexible working. Nor is it down to benefit changes like Universal Credit which has made more people go out to work.

Instead, it shows that people are working for one simple reason – they are too poor not to. Since the financial crisis of 2008, they have found their incomes reduced in real terms and so have taken work to redress this.

People have gone back to work or worked longer hours in order to make up for a decline of real wages of around one fifth since 2008. It has affected people with children particularly hard, and the increase in working is led by women.

According to the Financial Times, ‘in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis, 73 per cent of the working-age population was in work and this was viewed as full employment. Now, despite weaker economic growth and an ageing population, 3M more people — including many over the state retirement age — are in work. And the employment rate stands at its highest level since the Second World War.’

This is a picture of a workforce which is being compelled to keep working even though past retirement age, or despite having major childcare and other responsibilities. It is a sign not of a successful economy but of a society which cannot provide for many of its citizens. It is also a picture of ever more work of women who already carry an unfair burden.

There have been increasing signs of fightback, including by women workers. And that’s why the Tories, the judges and employers are so frightened.

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.