By Bernie McAdam
14 September 2015
Britain’s anti union laws are already the most repressive in the European Union. Thanks to the new Tory Trade Union Bill, they are now set to get much worse.
Liberty, Amnesty International and the British Institute of Human Rights are the latest organisations to condemn the Bill as ‘a major attack on civil liberties’. This was in response to proposed changes that would require unions to appoint a picket supervisor and submit the names and contact details of pickets to the police.
In a joint statement they say “it is hard to see the aim of this Bill as anything but seeking to undermine the rights of all working people”. Indeed. But it is much more than this.
Tory business secretary Sajid Javid has launched a vicious attack on trade union rights every bit as draconian as the rash of laws implemented in the 80’s and 90’s. The Bill constitutes a dire threat to the right to strike and is a major plank in the Tories’ strategy of rolling back the welfare state, whose public sector unions constitute the bastion of trade unionism in Britain.
The provisions of the Bill include:
To outlaw ballots with a turnout of less than 50 per cent. In key public services a total of 40 per cent of workers eligible to vote must vote for action.
‘Intimidatory’ picketing would become a criminal rather than a civil offence.
Bosses will be given the right to hire agency staff as strike breakers and the legal notice for the start of industrial action will be doubled from seven to fourteen days.
Unions will be compelled to renew their strike mandates with fresh ballots within four months.
The government will be empowered to set a limit on the proportion of working time any public sector worker can spend on trade union duties.
Give the government certification officer powers to fine trade unions as much as £20,000 for breaches of reporting rules including an annual audit on its protests and pickets. The certification officer will also have power to initiate investigations and will be funded by a joint levy of unions and employers.
A description of the trade dispute and the planned industrial action on the ballot paper giving the courts liberty to invalidate ballots on spurious grounds.
In an attack on Labour Party funding the Bill will require all unions, not just Labour affiliated ones, to ask all members to ‘opt in’ to the political levy.
The Bill is a continuation of Thatcher’s class war against working class organisations and their ability to protect their members. Thatcher was the architect of laws that reduced the effectiveness of picketing and regularly used the courts and police to brutally attack strikers. This time round the target is the public sector unions, the last line of defence in the struggle to safeguard our public services from cuts and privatisation.
The right of workers to withdraw their labour is the main weapon workers have against the overwhelming power of the bosses. It is the employers that own and control industry. When challenged they can rely on the courts and the police to enforce their property rights. The only protection an individual worker has is when collective action is organised at the workplace.
The Bill seeks to undermine collective action. The ballot thresholds are a gross interference in the affairs of unions and smacks of Tory hypocrisy. If they were applied to parliamentary elections then the present Tory government with only 24.3 per cent of potential voters would fall and 274 out of 330 Tory MP’s would have missed the 40 per cent threshold.
Kill the bill
Trade union leaders like Len McCluskey have talked about the need to break the law ‘if necessary’. Jeremy Corbyn has said he would repeal what he called ‘was a naked attack on all working people’ if he led a Labour government. All well and good.
However as the Bill is passes through Parliament with an expected Tory majority we need to ensure that a mammoth campaign is mounted throughout the labour movement to stop the Bill in its tracks right now.
The recent TUC Conference decision to call a national day of action and back the RMT’s call to ‘consider generalised strike action’ in the event of the Bill being used against unions is a good start.
But the tepid response of the union leaders so far shows we cannot rely on our leaders to organise an all out battle against the Bill. We should call on the TUC and individual unions to organise demonstrations and industrial action up to and including a general strike.
The Right to Strike Campaign could provide a lead to build from the grassroots and coordinate action to overcome the debilitating disunity caused by the existence of four competing campaigns. We urgently need one coordinated campaign across all the unions, one which also seeks to draw unorganised workers into activity.
Pledges to defy the Bill and other anti union laws should be promoted in every union. If one section of workers is picked off then there must be instantaneous solidarity action. A political strike of this nature will necessarily flout already established laws. Therefore it is vital that the labour movement deploys its full weight in scuppering this Bill and extending the action to repeal all the anti union laws.
The simple message is organise to strike if you want to defend the right to strike!