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Defy the anti-union laws

Union leaders complain that their hands are tied by the anti-union laws, but where is the campaign to abolish them? Jeremy Dewar outlines how we could launch one

When the TUC voted to “consider the practicalities of a general strike” a few years back, union leaders’ response was to send some lawyers away to see if it was legal, not to consult their members on how we can organise it. As a result nothing more was heard of it.

This wouldn’t happen in any other country in Europe. In Spain, Greece, France, Italy and Portugal, general strikes are a political question, not a legal one. That’s not just because Britain has “the most draconian anti-union legislation in the Western world” as Tony Blair once boasted, but because faced with an unjust law we have some of the most craven union leaders, too.

It was not always so. Indeed our union leaders decamp to Dorset once a year to celebrate the Tolpuddle Martyrs, agricultural labourers deported to Australia for forming a trade union.

There is no right to strike in Britain, as Lord Denning, once pointed out, only a system of immunities from prosecution for breach of contract if the strike fits certain criteria. These criteria have been toughened up since the 1970s.

The laws

• A strike must be called as part of a trade dispute over wages or conditions. It cannot be political.

• You cannot strike in solidarity with other workers, even if your work is totally intertwined with theirs.

• You must give seven days notice of a strike ballot, which must be postal and addressed to every member being called out and only to them. The employer must be given the wording of the ballot and all the names, addresses, workplaces and grades of the members. The boss can go to court and a judge grant an injunction at any time if there are grounds to believe that the ballot may not fit all these criteria. Just one out-of-date address or “ambiguous” phrase is enough to invalidate a ballot. No proof is needed, yet to defy the injunction is an offence.

• Workers can only picket their own workplace and must obey guidelines on picketing or they can be arrested and prosecuted.

• All unofficial strikes, called by the members involved but not by the officials, are deemed unlawful.

• In all unlawful strikes, individual members can be sued for damages, i.e. for millions of pounds. Union leaders, including unofficial “leaders” in the case of wildcat strikes, can be jailed, and union funds and assets seized as if they were terrorist organisations.

The operation of the laws requires the private employer or the government as employer to go to the courts and get an injunction, and if ignored to impose fines and penalties. This gives the bosses or government the option of invoking the laws or not depending on whether the balance of forces favours them.

Included in this calculation are the questions: will the union strike, will the strike hit hard, will the union leaders fight or be put to flight?

Union leaders claim they oppose these laws, but not one of them has ever defied them openly – except, ironically, the Prison Officers Association, which doesn’t even represent workers as such, but screws.

Yet countless workers have. Many have walked off the job, like the Gate Gourmet workers after they were sacked by text message. Others have come out in solidarity, like postal workers who take “wildcat” action to boycott work redirected from striking depots. Pickets regularly involve hundreds of workers from various workplaces.

Rarely if ever are workers disciplined or sacked for these “offences”, proving that it is possible to defy these laws.

Does this mean they are impotent? Unfortunately, no. In fact they play a deadly role even before strike action is agreed. Union lawyers inform the executives that the action is unlawful and officials tamely agree to shelve it.

How officials use them

Time and again the laws are brought up by trade union officials to counter arguments for more militant action. And the fact that they remain unchallenged has emboldened the Tories to promise more of them in the next government.

Led by anti-union hawks Boris Johnson and Francis Maude, the Tories want to further restrict, maybe even outlaw pickets all together. They also want to demand that unions reach a threshold of votes for a strike of 50 per cent plus one of all members balloted.

This would mean that every abstention, for whatever reason, is counted as a vote against strike action. It has been pointed out that if this rule were applied to the election of MPs, there would be only one MP in the House of Commons.

It is time for a real campaign to get these unjust laws off the statute books, to abolish them.

To do this we need to demand Labour repeals all the anti-union laws in its first parliamentary session in office. If it refuses to accept this, the unions should refuse to fund its election campaign.

In fact we need a massive campaign against them during the seven months before the next election, including petitioning on the streets and in the workplaces, and demonstrations right across the country. Labour MPs should put down a repeal bill now.

By these means we will of course not soften the hearts of the Tories but we will “educate, agitate and organise” millions of our fellow workers to demand freedom for the unions. And in the process we can recruit huge numbers of the unorganised to the unions, and encourage them to use them for higher wages, saving the NHS and many other vital issues.

Secondly, by raising awareness of the laws, we can increase the confidence to defy them among the rank and file of the unions. Then increasingly we will be able to make strike plans disregarding the laws, and if the laws are used, then we can expect other trade unions to call on their members to take strike action in their defence.

This is not a pipe dream. It’s been done before – in 1972, when the Pentonville dockers were released after the TUC had called a general strike – one that had in reality already begun with action from below.

Some may argue that the ’70s were a different era; we are not so strong now. But this misses the point; we rebuild union strength by mounting bold campaigns. If you aim low, you inevitably miss the target. If you aim high, you will get there – and maybe sooner than you think.

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