As the Tories are due to take the Trade Union Bill to parliament for its second reading, Gemma Short from the Right to Strike campaign explains why they want to further shackle trade union and workers’ rights.
1 Strikes win.
Or, more accurately, well organised and effective strikes win. They win because the workplace is where value is created; where capitalism makes its profit. When workers strike, capitalism feels it. Strikes on London Underground ‘cost’ the economy anything from £10-300m, according to various estimates. That’s the value Tube workers create just by turning up to work every day.
Although the labour movement as a whole is still going through a period of retreat, groups of workers who have organised sustained strikes have won gains: the 3 Cosas campaign of outsourced workers at the University of London, the Ritzy cinema workers, Glasgow homelessness workers, teachers in Lewisham resisting academisation, and more.
Strong unions mean better conditions. In 2014, hourly wages of unionised workers were 16.7% higher than non-unionised workers. For young workers, having a union-negotiated pay settlement will gain you 33% higher pay than a non-union one.
Even without the proposed laws, there is currently no positive right to strike in this country. Unions are already significantly restricted by laws introduced by Margaret Thatcher, and maintained during 13 years of New Labour government.
Workplace voting in strike ballots is forbidden, with unions forced to use postal ballots which compel workers to vote in isolation, away from the confidence collective discussion and decision-making gives us. Postal ballots are prone to the usual problems of snail mail – people moving house, ballot papers getting lost in the post, and people just forgetting to return them. Any slight clerical error in the way a union conducts its ballot could result in any resultant strike being declared illegal. There are already stringent legal guidelines against mass picketing, which the new laws would formally criminalise. Already, strikes over ‘political issues (such as privatisations), and strikes in solidarity with other workers, are forbidden.
2. Unions give workers a (limited) political voice.
Currently, all unions have a ‘political fund’, which part of members’ membership dues are paid into. Political funds are spent on everything from Labour party affiliation (for Labour-affiliated unions), to public political campaigning for union policies (such as the rail unions’ ‘Action for Rail’ campaign), or wider community struggles which unions support.
The Trade Union Bill will make union political funds opt-in, rather than opt-out. Against the backdrop of a relatively low level of working-class participation in politics – meaning the Tories are counting on significant numbers of union members not bothering, or forgetting, to ‘opt in’ – this is a move calculated to reduce unions’ political clout.
Trade unions give us a collective political voice by allowing us to use our movement’s resources to counter the vast wealth and resources that bosses have to pursue their political aims. The Tories want to destroy the idea of a collective working-class voice in politics.
3. Workers are empowered.
Going on strike can make you feel, suddenly, very powerful. You can say to your boss: “No. I’m not coming to work tomorrow.” You stand on picket line while your boss and the scabs walk in, and challenge them. What happens next is collectively down to you: planning picket line duty, organising leafleting and stalls, speaking to the media. For most of us, this is the most power, control, and responsibility over our day-to-day lives we are ever able to claim
Once we have a taste for that control, it isn’t easily forgotten. After a successful strike, and even after many strikes that don’t win, work is different – we’ve built links with our colleagues, developed a sense of our collective power, and are more likely to speak out and push back against the bosses. The note at the end of the film Pride which described what the main activists did next showed how many went on to lead other struggles: involvement in strikes trains us as class fighters.
The boss class wants to stop all that. They don’t want us getting ideas above our station and questioning their instructions – or, worst of all, starting to think that we know how to run our workplaces better than they do. The Trade Union Bill is not just about increasing ballot thresholds. It’s about clamping down on working-class self-assertion.
4. They have more attacks in store (and they want to avoid effective opposition).
Local government budgets were cut by about 27% between 2010/11 and 2015/16. A similar amount is estimated to be cut between now and 2018/19. Privatisations are ripping through local services, thousands of jobs are being lost across the public sector, and more than half of the cuts are still to happen. The Tories know that if they can immobilise our means of resistance in advance, they can smoothly carry through the cuts they want to make.
5. They know an injury to one is an injury to all.
All sorts of social movements suffered as a result of the defeat of the 1984/5 miners’ strike. Left-wing and working-class politics were set back for many years. Any defeat for the workers’ movement will have an impact on other struggles, just as an increase in workers’ struggle has a galvanising and enriching effect on other movements.
The organised labour movement has the power to stop the Tories, not just by winning economic concessions from employers but by challenging the ideology that underpins their policies. For example, strikes by job centre workers refusing to implement benefit sanctions could embolden and support claimants and service users’ resistance to sanctions and cuts.
If the Tories succeed in further shackling and weakening the trade union movement, they will not only hamstring the force that can hit the bosses where it hurts, their profits, but they will divide the working class.
Photos: Gemma Short.
Get involved: righttostrike.co.uk
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