A High Court inunction granted yesterday against National Rail strike action has been described by RMT union as “an attack on the whole trade union movement”.
Q. When can someone who has never been elected and has never had a democratic mandate tell people who have made a democratic decision that they cannot go ahead because it was not democratic enough?
A. When it is a High Court Judge ruling on a ballot for strike action of course!
This is not a joke. It is happening more and more often. An injunction was granted by a judge yesterday to stop the RMT union’s strike to defend safety in National Rail. The union is right to describe this as “an attack on the whole trade union movement”.
This comes only three months after BA applied for an injunction to stop the cabin crew striking over Christmas, and thereby causing massive financial loss to the company. The democratic mandate - a 92% vote for strike action on an 80% turnout - was strangled by one overpaid and unelected judge.
Professor Gregor Gall shows that this is an increasingly common occurrence. There were 14 injunctions against industrial action between 2005-2008. Ten were granted in 2009 alone. And this is the tip of the iceberg: there have been 40 threats by employers to take out injunctions in the last three years.
In the case of the RMT strike ballot the excuse was that ‘phantom’ signalling boxes had been balloted. Be under no illusions: this is a political attack.
The BA strike was called off for similar reasons: that some people may have been balloted who may have recently left the job, or would soon leave before the strike. This requires unions to have immaculate membership databases which is clearly a practical impossibility. It would be like declaring a General Election result invalid because some polling cards have been sent out to a house where the voter no longer lives.
In 2004 the Respect Coalition exposed and complained about the massive levels of electoral fraud taking place in the local elections. It took the courts until 4 April 2005 to declare the elections void. It takes only a few weeks when it is a union taking industrial action.
How can this be resisted?
Let’s start by looking at the strikes that broke the mould over the last few years. There were two waves of ‘wildcat’ strikes in the construction industry where site after site came out on strike in solidarity with Lindsey Oil Refinery workers in 2009.
How was this ‘unlawful’ action carried out? Not by the system insisted on by the anti-union laws where ballot papers are prepared and the employers are informed well in advance. Under the anti-union laws, of course, solidarity action is itself unlawful.
Coryton Refinery is a good example of what happened elsewhere. Its workers organised a mass meeting first thing in the morning. There was a debate about whether to take solidarity action where people spoke for and against. Then they voted: overwhelmingly in favour of taking strike action to start from that very moment.
There is still simmering discontent amongst construction workers aware that they did not win all their aims, but their action proves that the anti-Union laws can be smashed. The construction worker strikes were all over the news, people could switch on the TV and see people acting ‘unlawfully’ and winning!
These construction workers were not prosecuted under the anti-Union laws because they looked strong. Any attack would have meant an escalation of the action.
The tanker drivers’ dispute in the summer of 2008 points to the same lesson. They knew they had to fight to win and that might mean challenging the anti-union laws. Solidarity action was achieved when tanker drivers from other firms refused to cross Shell tanker drivers’ picket lines - and they were not prosecuted.
When news got out that the stewards in Grangemouth were to travel to London for a meeting to discuss the way forward for the strike the bosses did not feel confident enough to prosecute - or go whining on about an injunction. They caved in.
When we are combative we can win. The BA and National Rail bosses have called for an injunction because these strikes could harm them.
BA did not want to lose the lucrative work over the Christmas holidays. National Rail did not want to have customers disrupted on their way back from Easter holidays or (an even worse prospect for bosses) on their way to work. The government did not want another strike before the election, especially one which was likely to coincide with the day Brown calls the date of the election.
But if strikes do not harm the bosses they cannot win. It is the only power that we have at work. The answer is not to capitulate to injunctions any more. It is to try and escalate the action so that the bosses and the government dare not take it on for fear of making things worse for themselves.
The anti-union laws can be smashed for good but we cannot expect judges or Parliament to do it for us. We have to rely on our collective strength. We need to build a ‘Defend Democracy -No Injunctions’ campaign each time it looks like the employers are going to use the courts to stop us from fighting back.
Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.
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