The Tories seek to introduce some of the most draconian and authoritarian labour laws of recent times, writes Kieran Crowe
A long-standing quip by Marxists is that no matter how democratic capitalist society appears to be, work is still a dictatorship. The Tory Trade Union bill, coming before parliament on November 2nd , is set give a particular bitter ring to that phrase, as it will introduce conditions for organised labour in Britain utterly unfit for a country claiming to be a democracy.
On paper, Britain should be the very last country in the Global North aiming to restrict the activities of trade unions. In the 1980s, the Thatcher government imposed anti-union laws that set the trade union movement back many decades and went far beyond anything that had been seen in other countries imposing neoliberalism, including the USA. Indeed, Americans might well express surprise that British people at work cannot strike without postal ballots that management can challenge. This is to say nothing of the shock they might feel that the “sympathy” or solidarity strike with workers in other workplaces has been outlawed all together.
The British anti-union regime has not relaxed in thirty years. It has become more restrictive through accumulation of legal rulings that increasingly favoured employers in disputes. Employers have been allowed to get strike action ballots ruled illegal on grounds that have been harsh to the point of absurdity. There have been strikes banned because trivial numbers of ballots, nothing like enough to influence outcomes, have been sent in the name of ex-employees or employees described as being in the wrong areas of work. There have even been cases where the union has been forbidden to strike because there were errors in its members’ database that were not relevant to the strike – and that the employer did not even keep on its own database of employees!
The British trade union movement has survived, so far, despite the severe curtailment of its ability to use strike action and has attempted to get the laws repealed or get round them. A small number of unofficial strikes have defied the laws, though these have been exceptions not the rule and have always been very sector specific. Although the media in Britain hardly ever discusses union issues, the laws are actually controversial way beyond the unions. Left-leaning lawyers have long argued that Britain's laws were so restrictive that they actually breached United Nations covenants on the basic rights of people at work,
The unions had hoped Labour would reverse Tory laws. Shamefully, New Labour flatly refused to repeal the laws throughout its thirteen years of power, even after its own party conference voted to do so in 2005. In that year, the laws were deployed to prevent Heathrow Airport workers from taking solidarity action that could have prevented mass-sackings of an entire factory full of catering workers by Gate Gourmet. The workers had widespread support at the time, and not changing the law was a colossal lost opportunity.
So, the Tories cannot claim to be bringing reform to an unreformed sector. It must have been hard to work up a new Bill. What they have come up with is some of the most draconian and authoritarian labour laws of recent times, anywhere in the world, and certainly far worse than any in a first world country.
Some aspects of the new laws are plain and simple ways to ensure that striking is much harder. There is the new rule that no fewer than 50 percent of the total numbers of voters must vote yes for the vote to be valid at all, even if yes won. So 49 percent “yes”, 10 percent “no” and 41 percent abstaining would still return a “no” result. Not many MPs would still be in parliament if they needed 50 percent of votes to be legitimate. The ballots are still required to be delivered by post, despite the significant advances in communication technology over the last three decades, and despite the fact that various forms of e-voting are both convenient and secure enough to be used in all other sorts of voting (such as selecting Tory candidate for Mayor of London!). Strike dates also have to be announced much earlier: fourteen days ahead instead of seven.
The aspects that relate to strikes themselves are much more sinister. Picketing – protesting outside your place of work on strike to persuade other workers to strike and present a public face to the dispute – will be treated with a presumption of criminal intent. Pickets will have to register their names with the police, wear identifying arm bands and hold what amount to permits to be on the picket lines, which will be issued to only six people, to avoid prosecution.
People beyond the existing trade union movement might like to consider what effect introducing these restrictions could have if extended to other forms of protest, and it will certainly scare many people away from being involved at all. Another, perhaps more extreme provision, will be a legal guarantee to employers that short term contract staff may always be trained up and used to replace strikers (which is officially banned in many other European countries!). This effectively promotes the growth of a sub-industry of strike breaking agencies intended to undermine the ability of labour to organise and negotiate.
If that all sounds very negative, its because it really is. So, what will it mean if these laws are passed which, in the current parliament, they probably will be? They present a huge challenge, far greater than the attacks in the 1980s. But the context has changed. Thatcher's laws consolidated heavy defeats of major unions at a time when there was a generalised shift to the right in society
It is neoliberalism that is failing and fading now. Despite the Tories' election victory, the possibilities of alternatives forming are visible. Shortly after the election, the People's Assembly and the Trades Union Congress were able to mobilise hundreds of thousands of protesters against austerity, which was obviously followed by the historic shift to the left of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. Similar numbers of people have since joined the Labour Party, enthused by a message of change. If these people come into activity in the trade union movement it will reverse decline since the 1980s and a force that can mobilise against the union laws can be built.
Well organised groups of workers can get through even the tightest restrictions the Tories can throw at them. The London Underground cross-union strikes had overwhelming “yes” majorities, for instance, and if the unions need to improve organisation or perish then they will fight to get that kind of organisation elsewhere. To face off the more radical aspects of Tory attacks, however, it will require doing more than more of the same. The effective banning of picketing (or banning of effective picketing, if you prefer) is a human rights issue that must be challenged. The institutionalisation of strike breaking with new, hyper casual workforces, requires new strategies still: quite simply we must fight against the race-to-the-bottom immiseration that makes it possible for employers to pitch one group of struggling workers against another.
These battles were fought before, of course, in the early days of mass industrialisation, when workers also lacked security and basic rights, and many simple forms of protest were illegal. The movement defied the expectations of many, adapted to those workplaces, and organised them so effectively that we can now barely imagine factories of super-exploited, unorganised workers, except perhaps as the backdrop to Dickens story. The movement faces new challenges, in a new way, as the big employers we seek to organise aren't the factories, but service providers, which aren't currently well organised. The party of employers is trying to pass laws to prevent them from ever being so, we need have both the belief and the vision to prove that they will be.