Striking back after the Trade Union Act

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With the Tories’ latest anti-union attacks set to become law,
Mark L Thomas argues that there are ways to initiate struggle that can help stregthen workplace organisation, and prepare for clashes to come.

The Tories’ new Trade Union Act, which passed through parliament last year, is due to come into legal effect this month. The new restrictions it contains, above all thresholds for strike ballots, will further curtail the legal space for strikes.

As the excellent analysis of the new laws when they were first mooted by the Tories in 2015 by two industrial relations experts, Ralph Darlington and John Dobson, makes clear, the act is “the most sweeping and radical tightening of the rules of industrial action seen since the Thatcher era of the 1980s” placing “enormous obstacles to unions’ ability to strike” (The Conservative Government’s Proposed Ballot Thresholds: The Challenge to Trade Unions, Salford Business School, August 2015).

Most sharply, the new laws place in question the prospects for future large-scale national strikes. The Act withdraws legal protection from strikes which occur without a prior 50 percent turnout in a ballot. And for a list of “important public services”, such as ambulance staff or train drivers, an additional hurdle requires 40 percent of all those eligible to vote — whether they actually vote or not — to vote yes to industrial action!

To see the scale of impact this could have, look at some of the evidence Darlington and Dobson carefully assemble. They examined 158 strike ballots across a range of unions between 1997 and 2015. Most of these were successful with majority votes to strike. But under the new law only 85 of the 158 strike ballots would have hit the required 50 percent turnout. And even more dramatic would have been the impact on the overall number able to legally strike: 444,000 workers could have taken legal strike action but 3.3 million workers would not have been able to do so.

The strike figures have been pretty miserable over the last couple of decades compared to the 1970s or even the 1980s, but imagine what they would be like if the 50 percent threshold had applied!

Strikes in individual workplaces will be least affected and, crucially, large-scale national strikes involving hundreds of thousands, for example across the NHS or civil service, will be hit hardest.

How the union movement responds to these new legal restrictions is a key question. The pattern of disputes we have seen since the mid-2000s, when moves towards coordinated national strikes first emerged, has been a combination of episodic national public sector disputes, and a modest level of local disputes — sometimes winning important gains, sometimes being a real focus for solidarity and resistance but not able to transform the overall level of struggle.

If nothing changes the future will simply be one where a sprinkling of local struggles continue but without even the occasional national focus. This would be woefully inadequate in the face of the scale of attacks workers are facing.

How should the socialist left in the unions respond? Firstly, we shouldn’t simply accept the constraints of the law. Even if it is mostly propaganda for the moment given the attitude of most union leaders, we should still argue that at some point the anti-union laws will have to be defied. And when a group of workers do find themselves clashing with the law, the scale of solidarity that can be mobilised can play a decisive role in the outcome of that clash.

Secondly, we should not concede the argument that the new thresholds for large-scale national ballots can never be met. A recent article on the Communist Party linked Trade Union Futures website suggested that low turnouts in national ballots have occurred because outsourcing and privatisation mean that “national collective bargaining structures and processes and the strikes used to support them are becoming more remote from meaningful outcomes for members”.

The fragmentation of many public services through the role of private companies is real, and growing. But national bargaining does still exist in swathes of the public sector (and chunks of private industry) and does touch on vital questions. There is no reason why, for example, the question of pay which is still negotiated nationally for hundreds of thousands of NHS workers should be a “remote” question for workers whose pay has been squeezed for years.

The “lack of meaningful outcomes for members” comes closer to part of the real problem — too often national strikes have been called, and then abandoned after one or two days of action by union leaderships, even when they have been well supported. If workers had more confidence that their leaderships were serious about a real fight for tangible gains, more would perhaps see participation in ballots as worthwhile.

Another pivotal issue is the state of workplace organisation. What national union leaderships do is vital, especially when there is a lack of confidence among the rank and file — how the union nationally mobilises, how it communicates arguments for action to members, the resources put in place to get a good vote, whether they are able to convincingly demonstrate they are serious about a battle, and so on.

But a union head office alone cannot deliver high turnout — good workplace organisation, where the union is a visible presence, where reps and other activists are trusted and motivated to carry the argument for action and know how to organise to maximise the vote, is the other vital ingredient. And the single most effective way of strengthening workplace organisation is through struggle — passivity leads to atrophy, mobilisation and struggle develop sinews and muscle.

Solid majorities

Interestingly the one union that is best placed to beat the 50 percent thresholds in a large scale national ballot is the CWU. In Royal Mail the union held three national ballots over the last decade (2007, 2009 and 2013). In each case around 115-120,000 postal workers were balloted and in each case not only did this result in solid majorities but the turnouts would easily have beaten the new thresholds (at 67, 66 and 63 percent respectively). This reflects the fact that the CWU still possesses a significant level of workplace organisation in the postal delivery offices and big mail centres.

So we have to continue to argue for national action and we have to have answers to how the ballot turnouts out can be driven up. But the argument for even holding national ballots will get harder to win in most cases.

One important response is to look for whatever opportunities arise to initiate and lead local disputes. The impressive fight by the teaching assistants in Durham and Derby — not a group of workers with a strong tradition of militancy — have relied on local leaderships (and in the case of Durham, one that had to fight hard against the local Unison bureaucracy to even get a ballot).

Durham especially then became a national focus for solidarity. The very lack of overall struggle can mean that where a serious fight is launched, it can become a major focus for solidarity and inspiration. This in turn can provide a platform for a wider debate inside the union about the potential to increase the level of resistance. We need more Durhams.

But local strikes are not enough even if they can act as powerful examples. And if national action may get harder to win, even if the argument cannot be abandoned, then we need to rethink our strike strategies.

Revolutionaries, it has often been said, must act as the memory of the class, recalling the great historical experiences of the working class — the Russian Revolution, the Paris Commune and so on. The post strike of 2003 doesn’t perhaps loom as large nor was as earth shattering, but for the immediate problem we face it also is worth revisiting. This now largely forgotten episode (outside the CWU, that is) points to the fact that when national action seems off the table, other strike strategies can be tested and prove effective.

That year the CWU held a national ballot in the post — and lost it. But in the weeks that followed a combination of an official regional strike in London alongside a spreading wave of unofficial (and illegal) action gave Royal Mail management a “good hiding”, as one militant told Socialist Worker at the time.

A section of the London CWU leadership, sceptical about the prospects for national action, had been determined to get action and so pushed for a parallel separate ballot over a demand for an increase in London Weighting. A 200 strong London and South East reps’ meeting threatened to call unofficial action unless a ballot was granted.

After the national ballot was lost, Royal Mail management tried to tear up national and local agreements. But rank and file posties, starting in Oxford, fought back magnificently, with unofficial walkouts which forced bosses to retreat. London, which had won its separate ballot, then struck officially (and struck alongside 45,000 council workers also demanding increases to London Weighting).

London’s official action and Oxford’s success gave rise to a rapidly spreading wave of unofficial strikes as other offices across the country refused to handle the mail of offices already on strike. Within a few weeks the post was on the brink of a national unofficial strike — and management crumbled.

It was Royal Mail management, not the CWU, which was humiliated. What had not been possible to win in a postal ballot was won on the picket line after the strongest, best organised offices gave a lead.

Now widespread unofficial action certainly isn’t where most unions and workplaces are currently at. So what strategies are available?

There are some interesting straws in the wind. In the NUT, where last July’s national one-day strike has not been followed up, the scale of funding cuts and workload increase, will raise the question of strikes in individual schools — and socialists have to fight for more of these. But can we go beyond this?

An SWP member of the NUT national executive, Jess Edwards, in a blog post has floated some ideas: “If a number of schools were threatening strike action, there are other possibilities.

“For example, why don’t those schools link up with each other to strike on the same day or organise to go in to other schools to raise solidarity? What if there were possibilities for action across a whole borough, Multi-Academy Trust or academy chain? What if there were possibilities to coordinate on a bigger scale — across London for example?”

Activities

There have been discussions in London NUT about a day of action against cuts. This could involve members in all sorts of activities from small but important things like leafleting parents to bigger things like lunchtime demonstrations or strike action.

At a meeting of Unison’s Health Service Group executive last month, the union leadership argued that each of Unison’s regions should be looking to encourage and support at least one local NHS dispute over regrading to boost pay. This was counter-posed to a national ballot this year over yet another 1 percent pay offer in the NHS which was rejected with the claim that no mood exists that could meet the new thresholds in a ballot.

Some on the left simply counter-posed the two as well — rejecting any talk of increased local action as a disastrous retreat from national action. Yet an all or nothing approach over national action is liable to result in… nothing.

A far better response came from those, including by SWP members on the Heath Service executive, arguing that more local strikes in the NHS, with regional and national union support, would be a welcome step forward while continuing to argue for the need for national action. Indeed more local strikes — especially if they lead to tangible gains — can act as a way of rebuilding confidence and organisation, a central way that national ballot turnouts could be boosted.

How can socialists most effectively translate arguing for action — whether national, regional or local — into being able to deliver action? A central method must be to continually relate to the widespread politicisation inside the working class. The sharpest edge of that is over anti-racism where a large minority are horrified by the rise in race hatred.

Raising issues around anti-racism and creating an atmosphere at work — affiliating your union branch to Stand up to Racism, doing stalls and leafletting, getting people to wear badges at work, organising to take delegations from work to local rallies and demonstrations along with the union banner — is the best way to create a nucleus of people in your workplace and union branch who can lead action in the future.

And when Donald Trump comes on his state visit it cannot be beyond the realms of possibility to get protests and even some walkouts, however brief, in a number of workplaces. And that in turn would make an important step towards rebuilding the workplace organisation that can deliver more action across all fronts.