Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/850/20395
Editorial from the Socialist 850
How to fight the anti-union laws
Supporting Labour will not defeat them
"When the law is misguided, when it oppresses the people and removes their freedoms, can we respect it? I am not really posing the question. I'm giving you the answer. It ain't going to happen." Unite general secretary Len McCluskey made this comment in a speech to the Industrial Law Society on 19 March.
This was in response to decades of Thatcher's anti-union laws, maintained by Blair and Brown and now under threat of escalation by another Cameron-led government. The Unite Executive is recommending that the union's rules conference in July amend the basic industrial and political 'objects' of the union in its rulebook, which refer to how it defends its members, by deleting the words "so far as may be lawful".
The Tories have raised the prospect of even more repressive legislation, including insisting that 40% of union members have to vote for action rather than a simple majority of those who vote. When you consider the low turnouts in elections, only 15 MPs would have been elected in 2010 on this basis and probably not one councillor. Of course, neither would we have the Con-Dem coalition, which won on 37% of the electorate!
Jumping through hoops
Despite the restrictions of the anti-union laws, big business and their political representatives are desperate for more. Already, unions have to jump through legal hoops to avoid highly paid judges granting injunctions to employers. Even if the strike is allowed to go ahead, from the beginning of the balloting process to the giving of notice, the bosses will normally have at least 6 weeks to prepare contingency plans, including the use of scabs.
Over the last year or so in particular, union facility time has been attacked in the private and public sectors. Councils of all political persuasion have cut back or completely eliminated hard won democratic rights to represent workers. In particular, PCS has been singled out by the government who recognise the role this militant union has played in trying to build co-ordinated action against the cuts. PCS has a left fighting leadership, with Socialist Party members playing a key role. It has to re-recruit 100,000 of its members because in the next few weeks, the Con-Dems are vindictively removing the right for PCS to collect union dues from members' salaries.
These attacks, and those that are threatened, show how much the collective power of the unions is still feared by the establishment and the employers. Coming from the opposite class point of view, they have a much more realistic appraisal of the potential power of the organised working-class than the right-wing union leaders. These so-called leaders will be keen to re-write the real lessons of the last five years' resistance to Osborne's austerity. They will try and argue that the union movement was too weak, citing the all-powerful anti-union laws as an example of the odds being stacked against workers.
But it could have been very different. From the student protests of November 2010 to the 750,000-strong TUC demonstration in March 2011 and the N30 pensions strike of that year, when two million public sector workers took action together, there was the possibility of inflicting a terminal defeat on a weak government. Even as late as last October, there was the prospect of well over a million workers striking together against the public sector pay freeze. But the right-wing union leaders have acted to foil these disputes. These setbacks have only emboldened the Tories and the bosses.
Union members will welcome the decision of the Unite executive and Len McCluskey's words that raise the idea of resisting this legal stranglehold. But to confront these laws, it is necessary to mobilise the whole union movement. This move of Unite should be part of a serious strategy to prepare for the mass action necessary to resist further attacks. Unite should popularise the idea of a 24 hour general strike that would inspire union members and act as a stark warning to what will be a weak and volatile government post-election.
There have been instances over the last five years, when workers have defied the laws, showing that when enough workers move together they render them paper tigers. On 10 May 2012, over 400,000 workers took part in the last major joint strike on pensions. On the same day 30,000 prison officers of the POA union walked-out unofficially, and therefore illegally, as their legal right to strike had been removed by the last Labour government. In addition, construction workers walked out unofficially nationwide to support the struggle at the Lindsey oil refinery in 2009 and again in the BESNA dispute in 2011. Governments were wary of taking action for fear of escalating the strikes.
Unite's move is an antidote to the pessimism of some union leaders, particularly those who paint a potential new Tory administration as a strong government that will dominate the unions and the working-class. In reality, if Cameron remains in No.10 it will be by the skin of his teeth and by virtue of an anaemic pro-business Labour campaign.
Many Unite members will be trying to square Len's words with the union's continuing support for Labour, including massive financial donations, despite the party's record. Throughout all the strikes against the effects of the cuts, Miliband has refused to support the unions and their members. While he may at this stage be not prepared to go as far as the Tories on new legislation, Labour's manifesto says nothing about repealing Thatcher's anti-union laws. Also, Labour councils have clamped down on union rights.
In fact, Len McCluskey rightly condemned New Labour's record in power, "Labour's victory in 1997 was one of the happiest days of my life, but that first Labour government, with its huge parliamentary majority, did nothing to alter the legal superstructure that allows the skewed accrual of wealth and power in our society. Tony Blair even boasted to business audiences that Britain's labour laws were the most restrictive in Europe." But in essence, Labour under Miliband is not fundamentally different and its position on the anti-union laws is governed by its determination to appeal to business.
Side by side with an industrial strategy to resist any attempt to further bolster these undemocratic laws, the unions have to build a political alternative that has a real manifesto for workers - anti-cuts and pro-union. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition is standing in the elections to lay the foundation for such a party.
In The Socialist 1 April 2015:
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