A new Tory Government was never going to mean a new era of peace and harmony, especially under the social and economic conditions prevailing today. The new anti-union legislation, announced by Tory business secretary Sajid Javid, represents a full frontal attack on the labour movement. The trade union leaders must begin the fight back against the Tories now.
A new Tory Government was never going to mean a new era of peace and harmony, especially under the social and economic conditions prevailing today.
Thirty six years ago, Margaret Thatcher, infamously misquoting St Francis of Assisi, stated that: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope”.
The truth, however, was that she proceeded to do precisely the opposite, using every means possible to divide and rule, setting one section of society against another, all on the altar of profit.
Make no bones about it, this latest bunch of Thatcher’s acolytes are planning to continue her dirty work. One of their key priorities, of course, is to try and shackle and restrain the trade unions capacity to defend their members.
On Wednesday 15th July, Tory business secretary Sajid Javid announced plans to ban strike action unless 50% of those balloted participate in the vote, and in addition in areas designated as “key public services” 40% of those balloted must vote to take strike action. As the Guardian explained, this would mean that if 100 teachers were balloted, at least 50 would have to vote, with at least 40 voting yes for a strike to be legal.
It would be easy to see this as simply a continuation of Norman Tebbit’s anti-trade union legislation from the 1980’s, but it also reflects the situation in Britain and internationally. After all, the huge anti-austerity marches have shown that there is a growing radicalisation in society, which has the potential to boil over into a new wave of industrial action. The Tories, therefore, are keen to try and force the unions onto the back foot.
The proposals, meanwhile, go far further than just relating to strike ballots, with other recent announcements including:
Forcing unions to ask members to renew their political fund payments every five years.
Compelling unions to renew their strike ballots after four months and to give employers a fortnight’s notice of a strike, while giving employers the right to hire agency workers to break strikes.
- Attacking public sector facility time.
- Fining unions for failing to report on their activities to the Certification Officer.
- Ensuring full details of the dispute and any industrial action are included on ballot papers.
- These proposals will be vigorously opposed by all decent trade union activists and active workers.
It is important, however, to look at the proposals in the light of some recent ballot results. UCU members and bus drivers, amongst others, have returned big votes in favour of strike action that go far beyond the 40% requirement.
However, as the RMT reported on June 30th, the majorities in favour of strike and industrial action on the London Underground were huge:
- Pay and Night Tube – 91.7% vote YES for strike action, 96.5% vote YES for action short of a strike
- Defending Jobs on London Underground – 91.8% vote YES for strike action, 94.9% vote YES for action short of a strike
- Introduction of agency trainers – 69.2% vote YES for strike action, 92% vote YES for action short of a strike
- Door alarm procedures – Jubilee Line – 93% vote YES for strike action
What this demonstrates, more than anything else, is that militant trade union action can win the confidence of members and can deliver results in ballots. And even more importantly, it can deliver on the ground in terms of better conditions and better wages.
The fact that militancy clearly pays has begun to have an effect more broadly within the labour movement, with Unite – the country’s biggest union – recently changing its rules (at its 2015 Rules Conference in June) to allow the union to support illegal action in the future, which would also open up the possibility of a general strike. As the Daily Mail reported:
Mr McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, has amended the organisation’s constitution to say members should not be expected to obey ‘oppressive’ legislation.
He told activists: ‘Unite is not going to see itself rendered toothless by passively submitting to unjust laws.’
Speaking at the union’s rules conference, which discusses changes to regulations, he added: ‘If the Tories wish to put trade unionism beyond the law then so be it.
‘We are ready for the fight and we will, I believe, find allies among everyone who cares for freedom and democracy.’
The problem for the Tories, however, is that changes like this don’t reflect the subjective intentions of the trade union leaders, but in fact reflect the pressure from below. As is evident from the decision by the Unite executive to back Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership election, sometimes the trade union leaders can be forced to move further than they would like.
Unions need fighting leadership
A few years ago on 29th November 2011, 29 unions struck in defence of public sector pensions in a huge display of collective strength. On that day, more strike days were recorded than in the previous five years in total. But the most significant thing was that the strike day demonstrated what can be achieved once the trade union leaders “lift their little finger”.
Tory trade union laws have had an impact over the years in Britain; but in truth they have always had a far greater impact on the consciousness of the trade union bureaucracy than on the membership. The biggest impact has been on how the unions organise. No amount of trade union legislation will stop working people from fighting to defend their interests. Recently, UNISON returned huge votes in favour of retaining its political funds. In fact, organising to win ballots for strike action and political fund ballots can become a way of recruiting new stewards and new members and strengthening the trade unions on the ground.
With a clear sighted fighting leadership, the issue of delivering votes in ballots or defeating the Tory Trade Union Bill in its entirety would be much easier. After all, the Tories Industrial Relations Act was defeated in the 1970’s and the miners defeated Ted Heath in 1972 and 1974. The short sighted and cowardly “new realism” of the late 1980’s reflected the timidity of the right-wing leaders to the Tory attacks.
As the huge anti-austerity march in London on June 20th and the growing momentum behind Jeremy Corby in the Labour leadership election demonstrate, there is an increasing radicalisation in society and workers are looking for explanations and a way out of this miserable capitalist system. Tebbit’s anti-trade union laws were introduced in the aftermath of the defeat of the miner’s strike. But that was more than a generation ago. The world has changed, and the Tories may not find this latest attack as easy to deliver as they imagine.