The need for a labour movement that can defy the law

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.

Submitted by Phil on April 5, 2013

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.


Joseph Kay

11 years 2 months ago

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Submitted by Joseph Kay on April 5, 2013

Ha, timely. Recent stuff at Sussex has got me thinking what a 'wildcat union'* would need to do and look like, in terms of decentralised strike funds, having a pool of people able to rep workmates in any subsequent disciplinaries without official union support etc. I'll write up my thoughts once the dispute is over, still too much to play for at the moment, and my time's better spent organising.

* whether or not people see this as a 'real union', i'm talking about what infrastructure and support structures would be necessary on a shop floor/local/industrial level to enable/encourage unofficial action


11 years 2 months ago

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Submitted by Phil on April 6, 2013

As an update:


The success paves the way for the half-day strike on the morning of Monday, 8 April of the 55,000 members in Revenue and Customs while the 24-hour strike in the Home Office and former UK Border Agency planned for Monday – but postponed after a legal challenge – will now be escalated to a week-long series of walkouts across various departments in a fortnight’s time.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: "These walkouts have been very solidly supported and show the depth of anger hard-working public servants feel at having their living standards cut.

"We warned the Home Office and UKBA that their belligerent approach would only serve to escalate the dispute and we are now planning a longer series of strikes that will cause even more disruption."

Clearly a solid response as far as legal trade unionism goes. Though it doesn't change the fact that the ability of a rank-and-file movement to actively defy attempts to frustrate action using the law, allowing the possibility of such an escalation as above but without the legally required delay would mitigate this problem far more effectively.

Raz Chaoten

11 years 2 months ago

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Submitted by Raz Chaoten on April 17, 2013

Non workplace based direct action campaigns in which anarchists are heavily involved, such as environmental struggles and the squatting movement, take breaking the law for granted and the most effective and organised of them think carefully in advance about such things as arrest support, clandestinity and training for new militants in the practical skills required for breaking the law in strategically significant ways.

Upon getting involved in anarchist workers solidarity networks and organisations i was shocked to find people even ridiculing such things. Yet it has always been obvious to me that workers need to break the law in order to win struggles, and need to build up strong amounts of popular support in order to do so.

this means that Anarchists have to be out there explaining to the general public why breaking the law is OK. In other words we need to be explaining why the State is a bad thing, which would seem like an obvious task for anti-statists anyway.

Organisations like the IWW and Solfed seem to have a lot more money for printing literature than most other anarchists and yet i have never seen them produce such literature, or provide training on how to take illegal action without getting caught.

whats up with that?

Chilli Sauce

11 years 2 months ago

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Submitted by Chilli Sauce on April 17, 2013

Well, to begin, what were most concerned with (speaking for SF here, but as an ex member of the US IWW) is direct action in the workplace. In both those instances, it's a not a matter of legality. In the US, outside of a union contract that's given the right away, the IWW is looking to engage in concerted activity--which is legally protected. In the UK, things like wildcat strikes and mass/secondary pickets aren't illegal, as such, but are unlawful, unprotected activity.

Now, of course, that doesn't stop that state from cracking down. But before we get to even being able to take those sort of actions, we need to build up confidence and density. No use scaring people off by openly offering courses in breaking the law. We'd be much better served to offer effective workplace organiser training course that actually give folks the sort of collective strength to combat anti-worker regulation.


11 years 2 months ago

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Submitted by wojtek on April 21, 2013

How come Home Office/UKBA staff have your support but not prison officers?