By Chas Berry, Socialist Alternative Kent & Medway
Laws in the UK designed to prevent or restrict collective action by workers in pursuit of legitimate claims over pay, terms and conditions are amongst the most repressive in the so-called ‘democratic’ world. Since the previous high point of industrial militancy in 1979, successive Tory governments have sought to make it more and more difficult for workers to organise without the risk of being taken to court or sacked. The latest piece of legislation making its way through Parliament, the Strikes (Minimum Service Level) Bill, aims to tighten the screw even further, placing a legal requirement upon unions to tell employers who is available to provide cover during strike days so that businesses can keep on running.
Under the terms of the Bill, employers providing services where the government sets minimum service levels will be able to issue a ‘work notice’, requiring the union to direct its members to attend the workplace even if they have participated in a legal ballot for industrial action. Failure to take ‘reasonable steps’ to achieve this could result in the union being sued. Failure by an individual worker to comply with such a notice could result in dismissal. This is effectively enforced scabbing to a degree that even the undemocratic House of Lords has asked the Commons Majority Tories to think again about the consequences of such draconian measures, and the liability of trade union leaderships for failing to ensure compliance.
Ruling class nervous of strike support
These new anti-trade union laws were originally put forward in response to the surging wave of strikes last summer. Following this initial round of action by workers, the idea of striking remains popular. The working class is back, and the bosses are nervous about the potential for future strike waves, building on the experience of the last year.
As it stands, the Bill will allow the Secretary of State to set minimum standards in sectors covering health, fire and rescue, education, transport, nuclear decommissioning and management of radioactive waste, along with border security. These are all areas where, despite significant disruption to services in the recent period, public support has remained high, and the attitude of the workforce towards taking action to defend their rights has hardened. Moreover, vacancies in these sectors are notoriously difficult to fill and where pressure on living standards has been most keenly felt. There are around 43,000 unfilled nursing vacancies, for example, and the number of new entrants to Initial Teacher Training fell from 40,377 in 2020/21 to 28,991 last year, just 71% of the government’s own target.
The Tories’ attacks on the unions is also part of a calculated strategy to divide and rule the working class by seeking to scapegoat ‘militant’ unions for all the failures of public services in particular, which in turn is part of their broader culture wars approach to British politics. They are also banking on the weakness of some of the union leaderships to acquiesce to the ‘law’. Unfortunately the union leaderships have proved so far to be incapable of resisting attacks on workers rights, justifying the Tories’ misplaced confidence.
Despite the appalling legislation brought in during 2016, which increased legal thresholds for strike ballots, ASLEF, the RMT and the postal workers (CWU) have consistently smashed the ballot thresholds. Meanwhile, the largest private sector union Unite, has a good record of securing high turnouts and above-inflation pay settlements in the recent period. Workers have proven by their actions that these laws can be either broken or bypassed by determined and united action.
Workers cannot rely on the Labour Party
RMT leader Mick Lynch has stated categorically that his union will ignore any work notices and has called on Labour leader Keir Starmer to reverse the Bill within the first 100 days of an incoming Labour Government, if it is passed into law. While Starmer has stated he would repeal this restrictive Act, the experience of workers under the Blair and Brown Labour Governments between 1997 and 2010 should dispel any myth that we can expect any major concessions to workers once the Tories leave the political stage.
During this period, Labour maintained all the key elements of Thatcher’s anti-union laws on ballots, picketing and industrial action and sided with the institutionally misogynistic Confederation of British Industry (CBI) to introduce the first 40% thresholds for strike ballots. Given Starmer’s stated aim to ‘go further and deeper than New Labour’s rewriting of Clause IV (Labour’s traditional commitment to workers’ control and socialism) there is zero chance of any significant improvement for workers under his regime.
Genuine progress will depend on the extent to which workers, youth and all those suffering oppression under this brutal capitalist system are able to inflict defeats upon employers and their political representatives, the Tories and their Labour/Lib-Dem/SNP/Plaid Cymru second teams. This means using our positions as shop stewards, workplace reps, socialist feminists, climate campaign groups and socialist youth activists to build on the power we have as working class people – as has been highlighted once again in the strike wave of the last year. We should demand employers, local councils and Mayors’ offices refuse to issue work notices. Mass solidarity campaigns must be launched to defend any worker targeted for refusing to comply. An injury to one is an injury to all!
Above all, the actions of workers in maintaining safe staffing levels during the pandemic lockdowns and during the ambulance, junior doctors and nursing disputes is a reminder of where the real power in society lies. We fight for socialist change to put working class people as a whole in control over how society is run. On that basis, we could make a start by ending all repressive anti-trade union legislation.
By taking the massive wealth in society, currently hoarded by the super-rich, and bringing it into democratic public ownership, we could fund an immediate, above inflation pay rise for all workers, and build a society where working class people do not pay the price for capitalist crisis.
Socialist Alternative says:
Oppose the anti-trade union legislation – defend the right to strike!
We cannot wait for a Labour government. We need to organise opposition to the legislation now, whilst demanding that Labour make it a priority to repeal all anti-union laws.
Trade union leaders have attacked the Bill, but strong words need to be turned into action to resist any attempts at imposing, or using new anti-union laws.
The entire trade union movement should mount solidarity demonstrations, mass pickets and where necessary, widespread industrial action to defend any group of workers singled out by the government or employer.