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Tory anti-strike law aims to break the unions

By Jeremy Dewar

28 May 2015

Tory Business Secretary Sajid Javid’s anti-democratic measures to restrict strikes and legalise scabbing have the aim of breaking resistance to austerity.

As TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady warned, they want to “make legal strikes close to impossible”.

The new law’s aim is to weaken the trade unions ability to mount national strikes and industrial action in public services. By “essential services” they mean in fact most public services: health, transport, fire brigades and education.

Why? Because these constitute the remaining stronghold of the unions, include those with the most left wing leaderships, and those that mounted resistance to the last round of austerity.

Anti-strike laws

The new anti-union law included in the Queen’s Speech will impose further restrictions on the right to strike by requiring all strike ballots to achieve a 50 per cent turnout and those in essential services to win 40 per cent of all those eligible to vote for action.

The first new anti-union law for 20 years will also make it legal for employers to hire agency workers to break strikes. Before now bosses have got round the law by hiring a new workforce and locking out unionised workers, or by transferring work to a different site. But this makes it much easier to run scab operations.

The proposal effectively means counting abstentions as votes against strike action and demanding a 50 per cent turnout is reminiscent of the discredited law to transfer council estates to housing associations.

Unite Assistant General Secretary Steve Turner pointed out “this proposal is coming from a new administration with just 36.9 per cent of the vote”. Talk about hypocrisy. Add to this the obstacles placed in the way of increasing participation and the full extent of this assault on democracy emerges. Civil service departments and even, disgracefully, some Labour councils are cutting shop stewards’ facility time, while withdrawing the check-off system, which deducts membership fees at source, forcing the unions to retain members by collecting subs in cash or via direct debits.

Of course the only way to increase union membership, participation and activity is through greater rank and file authority and control. But here the union leaders are nearly always absolutely steadfast against handing over their powers to the members on the ground.

So who are the laws immediately aimed at? The National Union of Teachers, Public and Commercial Services union, the Rail Maritime and Transport union and Fire Brigades Union have all been at the forefront of resistance to neoliberalism at one point or another over the past 15 years. All provide vital services to millions. All are in the firing line. The private sector could also be hit. The Royal Mail, colleges and even petrochemical workers at Grangemouth, who could stem the flow of petrol to Scotland and the north of England: are they “essential services”?

Given the proven militancy of their workforces in the Communication Workers Union, the Universities and Colleges Union and Unite, probably. The big three unions – Unite, Unison and the GMB – who brought out millions on one day strikes in health, local government and across the public sector over pensions and pay would all find it very hard at present to deliver turnouts and winning margins close to the Tory benchmarks.

Yet the new round of austerity – alongside the measures of the first round that have yet to be implemented – will decimate public services and jobs. The pay freeze will be reimposed and increasingly supplemented by deskilling, downgrading, forced unpaid overtime and actual pay cuts. In short, the unions will be tested very, very quickly. Will they step up to the mark?

There has been some fighting talk from our leaders. RMT General Secretary Mick Cash said: “The trade unions will unite to fight these attacks.” Unite leader Len McCluskey warned before the election, “should there be a Conservative majority in May, there will be a new attack on trade union rights and democracy… When the law is misguided, when it oppresses the people and removes their freedoms, can we respect it? I am not really posing the question. I’m giving you the answer. It ain’t going to happen.” Unite will now debate removing the words “so far as is lawful” from its description of supportable strike action in its rulebook at a special conference this summer.

Unfortunately we have heard this sort of fighting talk before. But talk is what it always remains.The bitter truth is that the union leaders have frittered away the last five years of austerity on marches that led nowhere, and one-day strikes that led to sell-outs.

What to do

As soon as the Green Paper is published and its parliamentary timetable announced trade unionist activists, with the help of the whole anti-cuts movement, should launch a series of demonstrations, workplace meetings and local rallies to alert workers to the severity of the attack and agitate for action.

Resistance must include the fight against all the other anti-union measures aimed at breaking up the public sector strongholds of trade unionism. It should also focus on solidarity action with sectors – like the Network Rail workers – about to, or currently taking action.

Left caucuses in the unions and the socialist organisations should organise a conference to launch such a campaign from below. We should not wait for the union leaders or smother criticism of them. But neither can we just ignore them. The left in the unions should put emergency motions to upcoming union conferences and to the TUC demanding that they put their full resources, local and national, behind the movement to kill the anti-union bill. Labour MPs too (indeed any parties claiming to be “left” or sympathetic to the unions) must be pressured into filibustering the bill in parliament whilst tens of thousands demonstrate outside of it.

Doubtless some people will argue that workers lack the confidence, or the shopfloor organisation to do this and have lost the traditions of mounting such defiance. But such traditions are not built gradually in times of peace and quiet, but start from surprise and indignation at the injustice of such an attack.

If we can build such a wave of anger and mass protest, then the issue of industrial action will be put back on the agenda. And in those circumstances it becomes not just a matter of stopping new anti-union laws, but forcing the repeal of all the old ones passed by Thatcher and Major and left in place Blair and Brown.

Rank and file activists should campaign inside the unions for a policy of open defiance of the anti-union laws, old and new, with strike action at the heart of their strategy. Any union that is taken to court, fined or shackled should be backed up with solidarity action, up to and including a general strike.

United action

To fight this vicious Tory government we need to meet David Cameron’s much-vaunted first 100 days in office with 100 days of resistance. We cannot wait for the signal for action to come from the top union leaders. The last five years shows that – aside from speechifying at union conferences – resistance will not start with them. But amongst workforces under attack and community based campaigns- defending hospitals against closures, fighting against gentrification and for social housing, – it has never stopped.

What these struggles need is greater coordination and the realisation that we now face an even more united enemy. We ourselves need to be more united, both locally and nationally too.

Rank and file unionists in workplaces and local branches need to set up local action committees to win the wider working class to the defence of jobs, wages, services and conditions.

We need a drive to unionise and fight for the rights of casual, precarious and zero-hours workers, and a campaign to encourage a new layer of shop stewards to retain existing and recruit new members.

The severity of the battles ahead mean that either we raise our game, transfrom our organisations into more effective fighting bodies or the setbacks we have suffered so far will be as nothing to what Cameron and Osborne mean to inflict.

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