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Kill the bill!
Stop the new Tory anti-union laws
Bill Mullins and Rob Williams
The gloves are well and truly off. The Tories have unveiled their Trade Union Bill, which is far more vicious than first trailed and is an extension and deepening of Thatcher's anti-union laws. It is absolutely essential that the trade union movement confronts these laws and fights the continuation of the cuts offensive.
The Tories' outrageous plans to introduce even more anti-union laws have left most union activists shocked. Incidentally, one of the major crimes of New Labour was to leave these laws on the statute book over the 13 years of Blair and Brown, allowing them to be added to by Cameron and Co.
Many union leaders who normally say little about the wider problems of society have been taken aback by these new proposals. Mike Whelan, general secretary of the train drivers' union Aslef, was quoted by the Guardian comparing the attack to Germany in the 1930s under fascism. Paul Kenny of the GMB said rather more tamely that "this would remove any incentive for the bosses to listen to their workers".
Sajid Javid, minister for (big) business, said: "One nation government will balance [the rights of trade unions] with those of working people" - as if the unions don't represent working people anyway! The sheer hypocrisy of the Tories takes your breath away.
Criminalising workers taking action
The Tories' proposals include measures, in effect, to criminalise shop stewards and other elected workers' representatives who organise picket lines. At the moment it is a civil offence to go outside the guideline for no more than six pickets to be on the gates during a strike. This will now be designated a criminal offence. The measures include the obligation to give the police the name of the person organising the picket line, and they could end up in prison as a result!
Other measures proposed in the new legislation include:
- A right for the employers to hire scab workforces from agencies.
- A double threshold for unions in transport, health, education and other parts of the public sector. First, they have to get at least a 50% turnout of those entitled to vote (which every union will now have to do even if not in these sectors). The union has to tell the employer exactly who they will be asking to strike and where exactly they work. Then at least 40% of all those entitled to vote must vote for action.
An example given in the Guardian said that if 100 teachers were asked to strike then at least 50 have to vote. Of those at least 40 have to vote for strike action, i.e. 80% have to be in favour of strike action.
- There will have to be a fresh strike ballot at least every four months.
- Two weeks' notice of strike action has to be given, allowing management plenty of time to hire a legal strike-breaking force through labour agencies.
- They propose to dramatically cut union facility time across the whole of the public sector - they have already started this in the civil service.
- They also propose to cut the unions' ability to have political funds. Not just those who give money to the Labour Party (some £25 million a year at the moment) but all political funds whether affiliated to the Labour Party or not.
- In a breathtaking fashion they are also proposing to introduce a levy to make the unions pay for the government's "certification officer" - who is responsible for policing the anti-trade union laws. It is as if they are making the prisoner pay the wages of his jailer!
Lessons from the past
This smacks of what happened under the Harold Wilson Labour government in 1968 and then the Ted Heath Tory government in 1971. Struggles defeated attacks then on the unions. It is essential that union activists study those events and learn the lessons from them.
First the Wilson government proposed its "In place of strife" laws, which included the jailing of any shop steward who called an "illegal strike". These measures were defeated by an aroused trade union movement and had to be hastily dropped.
In 1970, Ted Heath's new Tory government introduced the Industrial Relations Bill (which later became the Industrial Relations Act). Again this led to outrage within the trade unions with an outbreak of unofficial strikes organised primarily by the Communist Party front, the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU).
This movement from below forced the TUC to act and in 1971 it organised its biggest ever demonstration of over 200,000 mainly trade union activists from industry. It was here that the call to "kill the bill" appeared for the first time on official union placards, with a picture of a shop steward behind bars.
Such was the movement at that time that the TUC suspended three unions from its ranks, including the Sogat print union, for cooperating with the new laws. Eventually the whole Act became a farce. Despite the national unions getting massive fines, the state and its courts were unable to stop widespread strikes
Defeat this government
The unions do not have the same numerical strength now as they had then - there were 13 million in unions in the late 1970s; there are 6.4 million now. But despite that, the new laws could create similar conditions for an unofficial movement - or an official one - that could end in the defeat of this Tory government, just as the Heath government was defeated.
The National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) has played an important role over the last five years in seeking to mobilise rank and file union members to act as a lever on the trade unions to take the necessary action against the cuts. It will now also look to galvanise action against these anti-union laws.
The NSSN has organised a lobby of TUC Congress in Brighton on Sunday 13 September to demand that the TUC and the unions organise a demonstration on the day that the Tories take their Trade Union Bill to parliament in the autumn. The NSSN also demands that they prepare for mass, coordinated strike action on the scale of a 24-hour general strike if the bill is passed, linking in the fight against the Tories' brutal cuts. The lobby should be the start of similar rallies and protests in every area to build the pressure for this action.
Last year there were 704,000 days lost in strikes and this could go up. That is why the Tories are introducing these legal hurdles against the unions. But this could end up with an even bigger uproar as workers realise that it is up to them to defend their trace unions, because only way they defend themselves at their place of work is by effective trade unionism
It is no accident that this bill was presented just a week after the brutal Budget that has plied another £12 billion of cuts on top of £80 billion rolled out under the previous Con Dem government. It is also possible that the fantastic tube strike, that started that evening and locked-down London, has led to the Tories ramping up the bill. But the London Underground stoppage shows the power of the unions and the organised working-class which could defeat both Cameron's laws and the cuts.
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 17 July 2015 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.