A government that got the votes of just 25% of the elctorate wants workers to jump through yet more hoops before being able to take lawful industrial action writes Richard Allday
In the first week of the Tory administration, Cameron has made clear his priorities, and the Tory contempt for democracy. Sajid Javid, the new business secretary, has announced the government’s plans for union bashing, with the stated intention of introducing new restrictions on trade unions in the first Queen’s Speech.
The Tories intend to legislate to require workers to jump through yet more hoops before being able to take lawful industrial action. First, they are to insist that over 50% of the eligible workforce must take part in any ballot for it to be deemed lawful. Second, at least 40% of the eligible workforce must vote for strike action for it to be lawful in ‘essential services’ - an extremely high threshold to cross. Third, they are to lift the ban on employers hiring agency workers to cover for striking workers.
Leave aside that they presume the right to pass these into law when they do not have the level of support themselves, being elected by 37% of the votes cast by 66% of the eligible electorate (which I make to be 25% of the total electorate actually voted for them). But hey, when did they ever expect to have to abide by the same rules as the rest of us?
The truth is that their contempt for democracy is evident in every one of their proposals. The reason for the low percentage of members in most industrial ballots is not apathy, or accident. It is the logical outcome of postal ballots. Real democracy is not about putting a cross on a ballot paper, it is about participating in discussion with your peers, hearing the arguments for and against a particular course of action, and then making a decision. And part of that decision-making process depends on gauging how effective any course of action will be. That includes having a good idea how much support exists for different courses of action. So real democracy involves a collective act – and that is what the Tories hate. They want trade unions to be reduced to individualisedservice providers, to weaken our collective strength and boost the individual power of the employer.
Secondly, postal ballots not only reduce the chance of individual workers voting (and then remembering to post the bloody thing!), but ensure the decision is taken away from the workplace, and removed to the individual’s home where the media can and do attempt to influence the outcome.
The Tories argue that postal ballots are a way of freeing us from the bullyboy tactics of intimidation, which are (according to them) the stock in trade of union militants. This says far more about their view of how to win an argument than any experience I have had as a trade unionist. The only intimidation I have ever witnessed at union meetings has always been ‘moderate’ (that is, pro-employer members) insulting or threatening so-called militants.
If you think about it, this is common sense: most of the time, trade union activists are arguing against the grain in the workplace. We argue the employer cannot be trusted; we argue for solidarity with minorities picked on by the employer; we argue for an uncomfortable disruption in the everyday life of the workplace. Even when many of your workmates agree with your analysis, they are reluctant to act on it, because 'most of them [it’s always ‘them’] wouldn’t support it; most of ‘them’ are too thick/selfish/scared/up the governor’s arse'. In other words, you are the burr under the saddle; the awkward sod who makes waves. So most activists bend over backwards to treat opposing arguments with respect, because that is the only chance they have to get a hearing themselves.
If the Tories were serious about promoting democracy, they would legislate for all industrial action ballots to be held in the workplace. This would guarantee a far higher level of participation. Secondly, the ballot should only take place after a full discussion at a meeting of the affected workers – in working hours without loss of pay (to maximise participation). The ballot could easily still be a secret ballot: the mineworkers used to do this as standard, long before the Tories passed their laws, and the ballot box would be in a prominent place in the meeting room.
However, the incontrovertible proof of the Tories' absolute contempt for democracy comes in their final suggestion. At the moment, it is unlawful for an employer to sabotage democratically decided industrial action by bussing in scabs. At least, it is for the first 12 weeks of industrial action. The Tories intend to wipe out this protection for workers. You can jump through all their hoops: if you and your workmates democratically decide to take industrial action, fill out the ballot form, post it, and give the employer the required notice of what action you intend to take, (and who will be taking it – by name and job description – no fear of intimidation there then!) it won't be enough. If you do all this, and still take a democratic decision, theTories will spit on you, and allow the boss to employ scab labour to do your job, in order to sabotage your decision.
And they have the brass neck to call that 'democracy'. The Tories claim that we socialists are motivated by class envy. They are wrong. It’s class hatred, and it is for a reason.
Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage. A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.
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- Lies, damned lies, and Tory press releases
- 'Just do it': the politics of fighting precarity
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- The Winds of October - book review
- Derek Robinson (1927 - 2017): Birmingham steel