Some quick thoughts on the need to respect picket lines and the challenge of the anti-strike laws and multi-union workplaces.
As I detailed all the way back in October, a civil service senior management union has taken a stronger stance over key issues in HM Revenue & Customs than the 'left wing' union PCS. This in spite of the management union's apparent conservatism and its own leadership's attempts to convince members to accept the attacks.
Tomorrow, this is culminating in strike action - where PCS members will be expected to cross the picket lines of their own senior management on an issue they are technically also in dispute over.
Because the UK has the strictest trade union legislation in Europe, this situation was inevitable as soon as PCS retreated from their own campaign and refused to call coordinated action on the same day. Thus, the bulletin that they issued on the subject today, whilst giving a lot of hot air about showing solidarity during tea breaks and more campaigning coming up in the future, essentially boiled down to one thing: an instruction to scab. Officially, and lawfully, they could do nothing else.
However, this is of course contrary to the basic principle that you do not cross picket lines. It is also one of the reasons that strikes can be so easily undermined and weakened, and is something that needs to be pushed against.
For an individual, the simple act of soothing your own conscience is easy enough. Take leave, call in sick, use flexi time or time off in lieu. If none of these is an option, resign temporarily from your union and take advantage of the fact that workers not in a union are covered by the same protections as those in the union which has balloted under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 19921.
However, while it is good that individuals refuse to break strikes or cross picket lines, this in itself isn't enough. It is essentially an individualistic act and doesn't answer the question: how do we collectively challenge the practice of union scabbing and push against the restrictions of our anti-strike laws?
I don't want to fully answer the question here, because there is no one right answer or one cast iron blueprint. However, I would argue that there are some basic principles which can be used in looking at this question.
The most obvious is that the answer to this lies in rank-and-file organising. The trade union bureaucracies will not challenge the anti-strike laws through organising and direct action, quite simply, because it is not in their interest to. These laws are often referred to as 'anti-union' but in fact they solidify the representative function of a trade union as the mediator between labour and capital, and give power to the bureaucracy over the rank-and-file by restricting 'unofficial' activity and extending legal protections to 'official' activity.
There isn't a single set form for this. The possibilities range from the example of the Sparks, who were able to hold numerous visibly militant wildcat strikes and other direct actions in order to win their struggle, to the Pop Up Union, which bypassed the problem of having competing unions in a workplace whilst still remaining bound within the law. The short answer here is whatever you're able to do and whatever works.
The second principle I would argue for in this is direct democracy and collective decision making. As I've already said, while an individual action can help soothe a militant's conscience, it does nothing to help organising efforts. To do that, we have to try and involve as many workers as possible. Not only because there is strength in numbers and because solidarity (real solidarity, not tea break solidarity) really is the most powerful weapon we have. But also because the problem we have is that people feel powerless and scared to take this kind of action, and being part of the decision making is far more empowering than a message simply being fed down from above.
Finally, it also needs to be stated - as obvious as it may seem - that it will take a lot of slow and painstaking work to get anywhere close to the point where workers in different unions refusing to cross each others' picket lines becomes commonplace. Despite a short notice effort from the Civil Service Rank & File Network, it is likely that most PCS members in HMRC will simply attend work as normal tomorrow.
There are a number of reasons for this, but they will include in many cases a fear of disciplinary action, a lack of class consciousness, or both. It will take time to challenge that fear and to raise that consciousness, and many who cross tomorrow can be persuaded not to if the situation arises again, not least the vast majority who will never cross a picket line if it is one put on by their own union. These people cannot be condemned outright, when it is their union rather than their own choices which has put them in this situation, but need to be worked on so that they are convinced the next time around.
I would be interested to hear anybody else's thoughts (or even practical experience) on this matter, to start up a conversation and a debate that is long overdue. Because however we do it, we need to start chipping away at the most restrictive union laws in Europe - and it is only direct action which will get those goods.
- 1. Section 237 (2) (a)