The Queen's Speech recently confirmed that the Tory government's intent to bring in new laws further restricting strikes. The unions have reacted with fury - but will they really do anything about it?
After years of threatening to do so, the Tories are finally set to bring in even tighter restrictions on strikes. They are introducing the requirement for 50% of balloted members to take part in any vote for it to be legal, and in 'essential public services' no strike can take place unless 40% of all those eligible to vote in the ballot support action, regardless of actual turnout.
The UK already has “the most restrictive trade union laws anywhere in the western world”, as Tony Blair once boasted, and these new measures are only set to make things worse.
The official bullshit is that this is simply about making sure strikes are democratic, and a handful of rabble rousers can’t use the whole workforce as pawns to hold the poor bosses to ransom. Because, dear me, what is freedom if not the right to pay your workers piss all in exchange for making you obscenely rich without them having any means to complain about it? Nobody wants to strike, certainly not for triffling things like fair wages or safety, it’s only that the union barons make them do it.
This rhetoric quickly falls apart on even a cursory inspection. If it’s about democracy, why not allow workplace balloting to guarantee high turnouts? If it’s about legitimacy, why not apply the same standards to parliamentary elections, removing most of the Tory cabinet at a stroke? But of course it isn’t about those things. The fact that restrictions on scab labour are to be lifted only underlines that the point here is explicitly to restrict strikes as far as they can get away with short of making them illegal altogether.
In addition, it’s worth noting that these laws aren’t a response to overly belligerent trade unions. They’re the act of a ruling class on the offensive. They can enact the new legislation without worry for the same reason they can roll back all the concessions of social democracy - because the movement that won them is in retreat.
No answer from the union tops
Most people opposed to these new laws will know instinctively how to challenge them. Sure, there’ll be a naive soul here who really thinks a petition can sort it out, and a blind fool there who believes Labour will repeal them in five years time. But in general, people who want to defeat these new laws will realise that the way to do that is by defying them.
But it would be a mistake to look for that defiance to come from the union leaderships.
Such an idea is typified by the Socialist Party of England and Wales.
The Socialist Party
At the FBU conference, just days after the election, TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady announced that there will be a special meeting of the TUC Executive in the aftermath of the Queen’s Speech. But if Cameron (elected on 24% of the electorate!) announces the threatened new laws to bring in 50% turnout thresholds in industrial action ballots and worse for the public sector, this has to be widened out to an emergency TUC General Council.
It should be a ‘council of war’ to seriously prepare the whole union movement for a 24 hour general strike, as a warning to the Tories. More importantly, it would raise the sights and lift the spirits of millions of workers and all those lined up to be on the receiving end of the Tories’ eye-watering £12 billion welfare cuts. The left executives should work out a strategy to put pressure on the TUC. But if the TUC refuses to organise, then the left-led unions should get together to call action.
To their credit, SPEW concede the likelihood of the TUC refusing to organise such defiance. This is amply demonstrated by both the TUC sell-out of the 1926 general strike, and its retreat in the face of Thatcher’s anti-strike laws. But it is more than just reticence or cowardice. Even were the TUC not merely an umbrella organisation with no power in itself to call a strike or instruct its member unions, calling a general strike (even in the tokenistic single-day protest form) simply isn‘t in its material interests.
I refered to both the existing legislation and that coming in as “anti-strike” rather than “anti-union” because it actually serves business trade unionism. In restricting the ability of workers to strike, the law also reinforces the union’s representative function - in mediating between workers and capital and providing individual case work support rather than organising collective disputes. In other words, it helps the union bureaucracies curb militancy while reinforcing their role in defusing anger for a seat at the bargaining table.
Of course, militancy has already been curbed to such an extent that the incentive for bosses to offer a seat to the bureaucrats is ever diminishing. While the majority of unions remain in denial of this, some keep up a show of combativeness in order to present some level of threat if they’re not listened to. These are the ‘left’-led unions SPEW refers to.
But their combativeness, no matter how sharply it contrasts with the TUC as a whole, is still largely for show. Supposed fighting unions like PCS still ultimately exist to moderate class struggle and how far they will go is still limited by their need to secure a position in negotiations by selling industrial peace. Not to mention that as businesses the unions have everything to lose and nothing to gain by defying the law and risking the sequestration of their funds.
In short, even if the TUC general council talks the talk of a ‘war council,’ it will always be a pantomime.
We’re not going to see a general strike any time soon - even a token one for a single day. Lobbying the TUC to ‘get off their knees’ in ignorance of both how it works and its material interests is a dead end. As is looking to the Labour Party who were responsible for a document called In Place of Strife and would have had us today referring to the ‘Wilson anti-strike laws’ instead of the Thatcher anti-strike laws had they not been defeated.
Instead, we need to look to ourselves. Enough has been written elsewhere, including by myself, about the need to build a movement from the ground up based on self-organisation and direct action that I don’t need to repeat myself here. But the point remains that the answer lies with our class rather than those who proclaim themselves our leaders or representatives.
So let’s not sloganise about a general strike, especially not a one-day shadow puppet version of it. Let’s not ‘call on’ the TUC or the Labour Party for a single thing since they can offer us nothing.
Let’s take matters into our own hands so that we can start to advance instead of retreating.