The labour movement is facing a grave threat in the form of a raft of new and incredibly restrictive anti-union laws. These laws will make all-out strike action in several industries outright illegal and are designed to immobilise our movement.
Current anti union laws limit legal strike action to disputes between a specific group of workers and their employer over workplace issues, ruling out strikes over “political issues” or in support of other workers. The law also imposes a slow and bureaucratic balloting process and sets strict ballot thresholds. The new laws will also require unions in some sectors to break their own strikes and continue providing a minimum service level, set by the government.
In response to this threat Earth Strike UK and Free Our Unions organised a demonstration outside the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the government department responsible for both environmental and trade union policy. There was drumming, chanting, banners, and we heard from workers from across numerous industries who explained how current anti-union laws affected them and the threat posed by these new ones. Following the demo, we held a small assembly to discuss in more detail the challenges posed by all anti-union legislation and begin to develop a strategy of resistance. During the meeting we discussed 3 questions. Here are some of the outcomes of that discussion.
Question 1. What are the most important ways in which existing anti-union laws hinder workers’ struggles and the Labour movement? How will the proposed new laws do so?
- Current legislation bans secondary strike action. Secondary strike action (also known as solidarity action or sympathy action) is where workers who are not directly involved in the dispute join the strike anyway in support of their fellow workers, greatly strengthening their position in the dispute.
- The law has a negative impact on workplace organising culture. A slow and complex balloting process creates a necessity for union to have a heavy amount of top down bureaucracy in order to strike (for example ballots must be carried out by post and employers must be given two weeks notice of action), which leads to alienation on the shop floor and decision making taken out of workers hands. Unions also end up self policing to comply with the law, sometimes more strictly than the law requires. This is on top of the actual policing and enforcement and the state being able to use to reduce effectiveness of strikes.
- Unions are undermined by employers who are able to break other workplace rules and laws all the time without accountability. Restricting unions ability to strike removes the only accountability that most workers have on their bosses, creating a new era of industry barons controlling the lives of their labour force.
- Attacks on the unions are simply a way for unpopular and undemocratic governments to cling to power. Restricting unions removes a vital check on the ruling class.
- The long time period for balloting, combined with high threshold requirements, draws out industrial disputes and gives employers more time to bust unions. (Just look at the state of the UCU pensions dispute which has now been going on for years)
- Anti-union laws leads to a depoliticisation of the labour movement as we have to navigate a tight legal framework that may be in conflict with the wishes of union members.
Q2) How can the Labour movement successfully block these new attacks (and go on the offensive to remove existing anti-union laws)? What is the role of breaking the law?
- GENERAL STRIKE!
- “The only anti-union laws that have been successfully overturned in history are those which have been broken”. This point was discussed as there was some disagreement whether this was actually true. Previous examples where threatened legislation was overturned without the need for non-compliance where highlighted. however everyone was ultimately supportive of the sentiment; we should break these threatened laws.
- Employees need to have the confidence that they are backed up by the union movement in taking action which pushes the limitations placed on unions. This will require developing a culture of militant class consciousness.
- Build organisation and mobilise a national campaign across unions and industries. One Big Union!
- Demonstrate how difficult it would be to enforce the anti-union laws on a mass scale. The police cannot be at every picket line at once if action is coordinated.
- We need to raise awareness of the extent of the existing and proposed anti-union laws. Many people simply don’t know.
- Use direct action to disrupt the institutions that enforce anti-union laws and carry out union busting.
- Use existing disputes in workplaces to push the boundaries of the law. Incorporate general demands and social issues into existing disputes.
- We have to be realistic that we are up against an unaccountable government. The parliamentary system is unlikely to be a vehicle for meaningful opposition. Instead we should focus on developing civil disobedience, wildcat strikes and rely on safety in numbers.
- The employing class breaks the law all the time (for example the mass layoffs at P&O). We should too.
- We should introduce and act on union motions that give a mandate to ignore minimum service requirements. We refuse to administrate scabbing.
- The union movement should become more involved in prisoner support as the crackdown on trade unions and dissent more generally will likely result in an increase in political prisoners, for example as a result of the stricker policing of picket lines.
Q3) For a long time there hasn’t been many strikes in the UK, even over basic workplace issues. But that is now changing rapidly. How do we extend the conversation to raise the question of strikes over wider political issues, such as climate change and the NHS? Particularly given that such action is blocked by anti-union laws.
- Salting (this is a term used to describe organisers picking work with the specific intention of organising) key workplaces in the supply chain. We can then use our presence on the shop floor to connect wider social struggle with direct workplace grievances.
- Keep pushing at the edge of the law. Such as coinciding strikes over workplace issues with youth climate strike days.
- Issues that affect large portions of the population, like risk of blackouts, soaring energy costs, shortages, to unify necessity of action across workplaces.
- Tying external issues to workplace health and safety. For example, employers response to heatwaves, flooding, etc
- Workers implementing environmental policy directly. For example, not charging fares for public transport to reduce use of cars. If done at national scale this could lead to free public transport being implemented if fares couldn’t be enforced.
- We must develop working class education and socialisation. Providing workers with space for these conversations to take place and for collective education on issues like climate change. For example putting on night schools and opening specific spaces outside of bourgeois education for learning to take place.
- A resurgence of the old principles of unionism: Agitate, Educate, Organise!
- Avoid division within our own unions and the wider movement. This does not mean that we won’t have disputes or comradely criticism within the left but we should present a united front to the capitalists.
- We need more people campaigning for these issues and developing the unions as a vehicle for social struggle beyond workplace grievances. For example, what if the railways went on strike to end homelessness?
- We must question and challenge the nature of the work we do. Do I work a bullshit job? Is my work harmful to the environment and communities? Can the harm my work does be reduced or abolished completely? If not, should this job exist?
- Expand the remit of health and safety reps in workplaces to cover environmental impact.
We hope that these questions and the discussions that they sparked at our assembly will also inspire you to consider what we can all do (as individuals and as a movement) to overcome these laws and organise ever more effective and impactful strike.
We invite you to submit you own thoughts on these questions and help us develop a strategy for resisting the new laws.