openDemocracyUK

This means (class) war

The government's assault on trades unions will take workers' rights to collective action back to the 19th Century - unless we stop them.

George Woods
16 July 2015
CUPW Picket Line 002.jpg

An assault on trade union freedoms had been expected. The Queen’s Speech in May signalled the government’s intention to bring forward fresh legislation directed at Britain’s labour movement. But the scale and the reach of yesterday’s announcement has taken some by surprise. The government is proposing a 50% minimum threshold on strike ballots; to hinder unions’ ability to collect money not just for party donations but for any kind of political activity; to make ‘unlawful or intimidatory’ picketing a criminal, not a civil, offence; that employers are able to hire strike-breakers to replace union members; and that the government could fine unions up to £20,000 a time for breaking the rules. For good measure, the word 'scab' is to be banned.Together, these measures represent the most ambitious curtailing of workplace rights in a generation, and following the Thatcher era reforms, wind the clock back to before the advent even of universal suffrage.Take the proposed new constraints on picketing. Since the industrial revolution, there have been attempts by governments and the judiciary to use the law to restrict the freedom of trade unions, and the act of picketing has frequently been the focus of attention. For much of the 1800s judges could take quite severe action against those deemed to have interfered with the ability of a factory or shop to trade. Often these magistrates were factory owners and merchants themselves, and then as now, were consciously seeking to limit opportunities for workers to peacefully pursue justice. Over the intervening decades the law has zigzagged for and against the interests of workers, as their political power has waxed and waned. Picketing, crucial for effective workplace bargaining, came under renewed attack in a raft of Employment Acts in the 1980s, creating the legal climate trade unionists operate under now.So what is the modern motivation for such regressive steps? The answer is the same as it ever has been. The Tories, as the party of business and capital, are seeking to press home their parliamentary advantage by taking on their original enemy: the organisations of the working class. Coming just one week after George Osborne announced a new and dramatic austerity programme, the motives for curbing the means of resistance are obvious. The lesson from the past is this: whenever a Conservative government has judged it possible they have sought these or similar measures. And today, no sooner have they won - on an extremely questionable basis - a mandate unfettered by coalition with the Liberal Democrats, they have sought to further rebalance the scales of power towards corporate greed and away from ordinary working people.(A side note. This of course illustrates again the damaging outcome of the Blairite project within the Labour party. Blair retained Thatcher’s anti-union legislation and was proud of the fact that at the turn of the century, Britain had the most restrictive industrial action laws in Western Europe. Despite a vigorous campaign led by a section of the unions, this policy held. But rather than accommodate the right, this capitulation emboldened them to mount this even more savage attack. Had Thatcher’s laws been repealed during the thirteen years of New Labour government, it is inconceivable that the legislation now on the table would be proposed. By claiming to occupy the centre ground, the centre of gravity on workplace rights has been shifted disastrously to the right.)So what is required now to defeat the Tories’ plans? Well firstly, let’s be clear: these proposed laws can be defeated. Only this week the government has backed down on its touted objective to repeal the fox hunting ban as soon as it could. For them to do the same on this issue, two things are required.Firstly, the Tories must be isolated politically on this issue. Labour’s official response was positive. Jeremy Corbyn has been quick to pledge his support for workers. All three other candidates have spoken out in defence of trade union rights. Additionally, the SNP must choose political principle over any potential opportunity they may be tempted by to weaken Labour further in Scotland. The indications are that they will do the right thing. As for the Lib Dems, Vince Cable has already spoken out to condemn the plan, and despite him being no friend of the unions, this must be welcomed and built upon. The incoming Liberal Democrat leader must speak out too. Though they are numerically weak in Parliament, their voice raised in opposition counts for more than just their weight in the Commons.Secondly, there is a strong argument to be made to Tory backbenchers that these are reforms too far, and divisions among the ruling party’s MPs may well soon emerge. Those in marginal constituencies are of course threatened, but I believe opposition will also come from more unlikely quarters. There is a strong case to be made that unions, far from the tabloid bogeyman stereotype, are an essential component of a successful economy. The IMF, hardly a bastion of socialist thinking, has recently reaffirmed its view that unions are essential to economic prosperity. Smarter Tory MPs might agree, and decide to vote accordingly. The prospect of even a minor backbench revolt will send Tory strategists back to the drawing board.What will bring these two conditions about? This is what really matters. I believe the answer lies in a dynamic, intelligent and outward looking campaign, led by but by no means confined to the labour movement.The Tories think that everyone hates trade unions as much as they do, but the truth is the opposite. 77% believe unions are essential for protecting workers’ rights, and trade union leaders - derided as ‘Barons’ in the right wing press - are more trusted and respected by the public than politicians, journalists and celebrities. The Tories are desperately out of touch with public sentiment, and this advantage must be driven home. Every step should be taken to allow everyone in our society who favours the freedom for workers to organise as they wish to express their opposition. Every division in the government side must be seized upon. For this to happen, the unions must pool their resources in favour of making a populist case, with unusual alliances and fresh messages.So let’s expose this scheme for what it is. Let’s show that it has nothing to do with a regard for union democracy, or for accountability. The tightening of the law on picketing shows that. Let’s demonstrate that it certainly has nothing to do with a stronger economy. It’s about class interests, and nothing more. As past struggles show, this battle is winnable: for the sake of working people now and in the future, we must win it.

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