News & Analysis

Smash the Tory anti-union drive

18 December 2022
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By Jeremy Dewar

Like a scene from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Rishi Sunak’s ghoulish Tories are threatening nurses, posties and rail workers with harsh anti-union laws to come. Reliving the Thatcherite past, bosses are already starting to use last summer’s legislation to employ agency workers to scab on strikes.

The present visitation comes in the form of the Transport Strikes (minimum service levels) Bill, which if passed by Parliament would force workers to scab on their own legal dispute and scupper any strike. The spectre of the future includes Tory ministers threatening yet more measures, the worst being to outlaw strikes in the NHS altogether.

Agency scabs

In the last days of Boris Johnson’s (literally) criminal government, he snuck in a late amendment to allow bosses to employ agency staff to cover strikers’ jobs, something that was previously outlawed. Now that legislation has been used.

In the past few weeks security guards at Harrods department store and UCL university have watched agency staff steal their jobs from under their noses. In the former case, Unite’s Sharon Graham had plenty of notice, assuring the guards that if this happened ‘our members at Harrods will receive the full backing of the union’. To date no backing has been forthcoming.

But it is not just low paid workers in jobs considered unskilled that are at risk. Postal workers, school staff and even university lecturers have reported the use of agency staff to break their strikes.

Some picket lines have successfully turned away temps, many of whom did not realise they were being hired to break strikes. But Royal Mail in particular has retaliated by victimising pickets on trumped up charges of ‘intimidating behaviour’.

Solidarity is the key. The whole labour movement needs to stop this strike breaking immediately by organising mass pickets at every workplace that tries to use agency scabs to prevent them from working. The Grunwick’s dispute in the 1970s should be our model.

Kill the Bill

The Transport Strikes Bill’s main aim is to make any effective rail strike illegal, though it could clearly be extended to other sectors, like education or health. The Bill would require unions to negotiate a ‘minimum service level’ with their employer before every strike.

If they cannot agree, then the matter would pass to a Central Arbitration Committee (CAC). Unions can submit their arguments to the CAC but this body is only allowed to consider: a) the right of school students to education; b) the right of people to get to work; and c) the damage to the economy, i.e. profits. The government would be able to change or add to these factors without consulting parliament.

This is intended as a warning to any group of workers who use their industrial muscle to defend or extend their pay and conditions. It effectively takes away their right to strike as the ‘minimum service’ could be set at 50%, 90% or even 100%.

Paramedics have already pointed out that if they were to provide a service to prevent risk to life, they would have to all work and do overtime as the service is chronically underfunded. Similarly on the railways, there is a shortage of drivers and staff because of falling pay, so the Bill could make strikes purely tokenistic.

But the Bill gets worse still. The employers will choose which workers it calls in to scab on their own dispute by issuing dictatorial ‘work notices’. This is an open door for employers to name strike leaders as those who have to cross their own picket lines.

The Bill puts a legal obligation on union officials to force its members to work on strike days, to police effective scabbing. It also opens workers who refuse to obey a ‘work notice’ to charges of gross misconduct. If they are sacked as a result, they will not be allowed to claim unfair dismissal, as it would count as illegal strike action.

The ominous (and nearly omnipotent) CAC also has the power to issue fines on individuals and unions who do not comply with its edicts. Recently the maximum penalty for unlawful trade union action was raised from £25,000 to £1 million. Bankrupting our unions is clearly on the agenda.

It is time to raise the old slogan, ‘Kill the Bill!’ Behind this call in the 1960s and ’70s union militants effectively binned first Labour’s In Place of Strife legislation, then the Tories’ Industrial Relations Act. We can and must do it again.

We should demand our union leaders pledge complete non-compliance with the measures in the Bill. If fines or jail sentences are issued, the workers should walk off the job indefinitely. And if the union leaders do not have the bottle to lead such action, the rank and file must.

Open season

Sunak, desperate to cling onto power by appeasing his rabid backbenchers in any way he can, has declared it open season for reactionary policy suggestions. With the Transport Strikes Bill going through Parliament, the same MPs who recommended Liz Truss as prime minister are now pushing for amendments to shackle our unions.

Top of the list is enacting outright, permanent strike bans on millions of workers in health and education. Sunak has refused to rule any of this out. Asked whether she would like to ban strikes, education secretary Gillian Keegan replied:

‘Well, yes. We do have some areas where strikes are not allowed as part of the contracts, so for example the military can’t go on strike and the police… are there other areas that we should include in that? Health would be one to look at, and other areas of critical infrastructure.’

Other suggestions from the Tory right include: doubling the notice period for strikes from two to four weeks to allow bosses to better organise their scabbing operations; allowing unions to strike only once in their six-month strike ballot period; requiring public service unions to win 50% plus one of all their members balloted for strike action, making every non-vote into a ‘no’ vote.

Labour’s response has been to suggest that all this is really a bad idea and, tut-tut, shouldn’t be done. But when asked directly if a Labour government would repeal the new anti-union laws, Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves said that would be ‘jumping the gun a little bit’.

The official union leaders have been little better. Outgoing TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady threatened the government at Congress, ‘We’ll see you in court.’ At the recent TUC lobby of parliament, the RMT’s Mick Lynch backtracked on his earlier half-hearted call for a general strike, insisting that the new laws contravened International Labour Convention rules and the judicial route should be fully used.

Yes, the courts may have to be used, but unless the judges are sitting in the midst of mass political strike action, they will simply rule in favour of the employers and the government, from the class they not only represent but are 99% drawn from.

No, it’s time the unions, which collectively gave Labour £1.6 million in 2022, over half their funding, declared its own ‘open season’. They should demand Labour pledges to repeal every one of the anti-union laws back to Thatcher’s time. And whenever they are applied or new ones come before Parliament, we need political strike action against what is a brazen political attack. Indeed, we need a general strike to smash the Transport Strikes Bill and force all the anti-union laws off the statute book .

If our leaders will not do this, we should work to build mass strikes from below by taking solidarity action every time the laws are used and marching on Parliament when the Bill is being debated. It worked in the 1970s. It can work again.

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