Simon Hardy, a Right to Strike supporter from London, argues that it is urgent we get mobilising against the Trade Union Bill
The British workers’ movement is sleep walking towards total disaster. I don’t say that lightly – but the Trade Union Bill passed its second reading in September by 33 votes. On the protest called outside parliament in the evening there were only about 200 people, many of them from the organised left. Given the existential threat to the workers’ movement that this bill represents there is a curious lethargy around trying to stop it.
On the same day, the TUC at its conference in Brighton passed motions that called for a campaign of lobbying and protests and including “generalised strike action” against the new laws if anyone is persecuted under them. The RMT, who drafted the original motion, were one of the key unions in advocating a strategy to beat the Trade Union Bill, unsurprising since they are also bearing the brunt of most of the media attacks on them for their strikes on London Underground.
But in parliament, the arithmetic is against us. The Labour Party, SNP and Liberal Democrats are opposed but by current reckoning only around 3 Tory MPs, out of their 12 majority, can be shifted, which means that the bill will likely be passed into law, probably in January or February 2016.
Let us be clear about the consequences of the TU bill and what it means for trade unionists in Britain from next year. This is a strike breakers charter.
Whilst our current anti-union laws make effective strike action illegal, the new proposals goes much further – they will make most strikes and actions associated with them illegal.
• The higher ballot thresholds of 50% or 60% will make most strike action very hard to organise. The government already thinks that will reduce strike action by another 60% below its already rock bottom levels.
•Agency staff can be used to break strikes meaning many can be undermined and defeated quickly.
•“Intimidation on the picket line” will now become a criminal offence with a fine or even a prison sentence attached. This means that calling someone a scab or blocking a doorway to prevent people going into work could land you in prison.
•Unions or individuals could be fined up to £20,000 if they are found guilty of infringing rules around picket lines, for instance not wearing an armband or handing over names of pickets to management or the police.
•It represents a financial attack on trade unions. The certification officer will be given powers to audit any union at any time and then charge the union for the cost.
•The bill will have huge implications for trade union funding of Labour – which with Corbyn in charge will rely even more on members and trade union money.
Unity urgently needed
Yet, despite the greatest threat facing the Trade Union movement since we won formal legality in 1871 there is so little that has so far been mobilised. The TUC until now has limited itself to a craven campaign against the bill because strike days are already very low. This “why kick us when we are down?” approach might win them some sympathy points from liberals but it won’t convince the government and it won’t bring workers out to fight the bill.
The government is passing these laws now because they think the unions are weak and they can finish them off as an effective force for resistance to attacks on their members, so pleading for mercy only adds fuel to their fire.
With the TUC in danger of falling back on its natural conservatism and abdicating responsibility for a real fight back that could win this struggle, it falls even more to campaigners and activists to get organised to put pressure on the TUC and MPs to shift the balance of forces.
This certainly means working with the Trade Union Co-ordination Group of left led unions – but it cannot just be about pressure on the TUC. It has to be about calling what action can be taken as a way of trying to rally broader forces around the campaign. The meeting and rally in parliament on 13 October called by the TUCG and an evening protest on 2 November, after the official TUC lobby at midday, are important mobilisations.
The danger is that -so far – all we can see is the left going through the usual motions. That means we currently have four campaigns alongside the TUCs non-effort. Right to Strike, Unite the Resistance, National Shop Stewards Network and the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom. Unless we get a proper coordination of efforts and a plan of action then we will be reduced to bystanders whilst the Tories wrap our movement in chains.
Be prepared to break the law
If the law is fully implemented in its current form then it is inevitable that many trade unionists will face some kind of criminal prosecution. This means we need to be standing in complete solidarity with people who are fined or imprisoned. Unite has already changed its rules to say it would be willing to take strike action even if it contravened the law – but we will need action across the workers’ movement to make the law unworkable.
The union leaders approach could well be that whilst the official structures couldn’t break the law, if individual members found themselves in prison for it then they will support them, pay their fines, provide lawyers and so on. Others may have the Pentonville Dockers struggle of 1972 in mind, when five pickets were set to prison for disobeying an injunction. A series of unofficial walk outs across the country and an emerging strike wave pushed the TUC into calling a general strike, which prompted the government to order the release of the strikers.
Certainly similar action today would be a huge breakthrough in terms of the working class standing up for itself, but given the historically low levels of industrial action today it would represent an unheard of turn around in workplace militancy to achieve a similar movement today.
There is a real danger though that some assume that there will be spontaneous defiance. Perhaps – or perhaps not. In many countries there are very severe limitations on trade union rights which limits the ability of people to organise and can mean some of your most active people are doing regular prison time. If trade unions weren’t willing to defy the previous set of laws there is no guarantee that this new anti-trade union legislation will be defied.
So trade unionists and campaigners need to be building up networks now to prepare for a fight to undermine the new laws from day one. We have to make the laws unworkable.
What comes next?
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell spoke to a public meeting in Parliament as the bill had its second reading. He explained how the bill is simply the opening salvo to a much wider attack on human rights and civil liberties. After all, if they get this bill passed then not only will the Labour party be financially devastated it will make most forms of trade union resistance impossible. In war you attack your enemies ability to organise before you strike at their heart.
Putting the Trade Union Bill in the context of the wider attacks is crucial. After all, trade union rights are human rights, if they come for the trade unionists and win then they will come for everyone else next.
Right to Strike is campaigning to co-ordinate branches across the country to take action against the bill and be prepared to take action if it becomes law. If you haven’t passed the resolution in your branch yet then do so as soon as you can. There is a national meeting coming up in the autumn to plan further action.
Time is running out…