The Public and Commercial Services Union has responded to threats of legal action by removing one section of its membership from the strike action due to take place on the 5 and 8 April. This shows the limits of legal trade unionism. It also underlines the urgent need for strong rank-and-file movements in the UK.
We’ve been here before. At the end of 2011, Balfour Beatty threatened to get an injunction against Unite the Union to stop the industrial action it had called for its members in construction. Unite responded by instantly capitulating. It called off the strike and promised to re-ballot its members.
Returning to the present, on 2 April the Home Office served notice to PCS that it would seek an injunction against them to stop its staff taking industrial action. This followed threats from the employer that they would dock a full day’s pay for the planned half-day action on 5 April – and the initially robust response of changing the strike action to a full day on 8 April in response. However, now that the Home Office have upped the ante, PCS have backed down.
In the case of the construction workers, the capitulation was an unnecessary one. The RMT’s landmark victory against Serco in 2011 set a precedent that it would be harder for employers to overturn strike action on technicalities. This was proven by a subsequent court victory for Aslef against London Underground Ltd’s injunction attempt.
For PCS, the case was unfortunately clear cut in favour of the employer. The notice of strike action ended up reaching management a day later than necessary to meet the legal requirement for seven days’ notice ahead of action. However, as already mentioned, this was because the action had to be changed in response to what amounted to the threat of an illegal deduction of wages by the Home Office. The legal breach by the union was perhaps avoidable, but this only underlines the need for a movement willing and able to defy the anti-strike laws.
When Unite used the threat of an injunction against them in order to try and sell out construction workers, the Sparks rank-and-file group took matters into their own hands. They held picket lines at sites around the country, essentially leading a national wildcat strike, and continued their push to win their dispute in spite of the Unite bureaucracy.
Unfortunately, the Civil Service Rank & File Network doesn’t yet have the numbers or influence that the Sparks did. Their numbers are far smaller and – though aspiring to be a functioning self-organised group – in practice it currently functions as a network of activists pushing a more radical stance through existing structures. Contrary to the Sparks, who were able to shift Unite on the basis that they could clearly and decisively circumvent the bureaucracy where necessary, CSRF forced movement from PCS mainly through threatening to show up PCS and ruin its reputation as the “fighting left leadership” of the union movement.
The rank-and-file clearly wouldn’t have been able to do this without some weight behind its words. This is why the 18 October Coventry walkout was so timely, and the 14 November day of action that followed it. But there is clearly a lot of organising to be done before that kind of walkout can be replicated on a national scale or it can talk seriously about wildcat strikes in the face of injunction-happy employers.
But that kind of organising work must be done. Though the postponement of strike action in this instance can be put down to an avoidable error – and PCS in the past has shown its willingness to stand up to injunction threats – the fact remains that trade unions are hobbled by the law. Moreover that these laws, far from being “anti-union” actually reinforce the representative function of trade unions and the imperative it gives them to police their membership and secure industrial peace.
The task now, for Home Office staff in particular and for organised workers in general, is to agitate for and build a movement capable of taking action regardless of the law. Not only for when the union bureaucracies inevitably betray us but also for when, even with the intent of fighting, the shackles of legalism hold them back.