On 2 February, security guards at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital walked out for the first of 44 days of strike action. Now, just two weeks later, they’re going to court to defend their right to strike, following an astonishing high court injunction that threatens the whole labour movement.
The outsourced security guards – who work night and day for below the living wage to keep the hospital operating – are striking to win parity of wages and conditions with other workers who are directly employed by the hospital. Their union, United Voices of the World (UVW), has an impressive history of wins across the capital: in October, following the threat of strike action, outsourced UVW cleaners at the hospital won full parity in terms and conditions with directly-employed NHS staff. The security guards, however, have faced a bumpier road.
The guards’ strike began like any UVW strike: with a rally, attended by hundreds of supporters, followed by lively daily pickets outside the hospital. Relations between UVW and hospital management have been hostile since the start, with the union accusing the employer of union-busting and racial discrimination, while management alleges intimidation and harassment. A week ago, however, things heated up when the hospital’s lawyers applied for an emergency injunction against not only the striking staff but UVW and any potential supporters of the strike.
The injunction bans entering buildings, obstructing entrances and intimidation – all relatively unremarkable restrictions – but also the playing of music, any shouting or chanting, “rapid and dramatic movement” (including “vigorous dancing”), creating any loud noises, or any photography around the entrances. In addition, a small area outside a specific building near the hospital is now the only place in the country where protests in support of the strike can legally take place. Any protest happening anywhere else is not allowed. If you were to vigorously dance in support of the strike in your garden, that would technically be in contempt of court.
The hospital argues the injunction was necessary because “excessive noise and disruption” was harming their ability to provide care. UVW denies this emphatically, pointing out that the picket lines have been light-hearted, featuring childrens’ entertainers and music. In fact, by granting Great Ormond Street’s emergency injunction, the Hon. Mrs Justice Cutts has made standard picketing practices illegal – a decision UVW argues is a fundamental attack on the right to strike.
Given the trade union movement’s founding principle that “an injury to one is an injury to all,” you’d expect the other union branches at the hospital to be standing up for their colleagues. But that’s not the case. The majority Black, brown and migrant security guards are being abandoned by their fellow trade unionists while their right to strike is attacked in the courts.
In a letter circulated to hospital staff and seen by Novara Media, local union representatives who participate in the staff partnership forum (including Unison, Unite, the RCN, the BMA and the GMB) tacitly endorse the injunction. After taking credit for the insourcing of cleaners following the UVW campaign last year, they go on to brand the strike “totally unacceptable”, and express their sympathy with “the very leaders that we have worked with to achieve the successes of recent years” in the face of what they term “abuse”. To an outside observer, this looks a lot like scabbing.
Talking to Novara Media, Petros Elia, general secretary of the UVW, stressed the importance of fighting the court order. “If the injunction isn’t overturned, it will have grave implications for workers in the NHS,” he said. “It will allow for employers to effectively hamstring them from engaging in effective pickets and protests.”
Today, both parties will return to court for a hearing to decide if the injunction will be extended in full or in part until a final trial (which could take as much as a year). Sources in the UVW are not optimistic about the prospects of the injunction being scrapped.
Attempts to crush workers’ movements are not a new thing. For as long as workers have teamed up to take on their bosses, trade unions have been repressed. In 1834, six agricultural workers in the Dorset village of Tolpuddle were sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia after they began to organise against a pay cut. In 1901, the Taff Vale case set a precedent that trade unions could be sued by employers for the economic damage caused by strikes, thereby making withdrawing your labour an impossibly expensive act.
But each time another round of repression was implemented, workers organised and fought back – winning themselves the very freedom to organise and strike the ruling class were so keen to deny. That is, until Margaret Thatcher.
Thatcher went to war with Britain’s unions, using the ideas set out in the Ridley Plan and a paramilitary police force to destroy her opponents bit by bit. By the time she was done, trade union membership and strike numbers had gone from an all-time high into a nosedive from which they have yet to recover. In the aftermath of pitched battles like Grunwick, Wapping and the Miners’ strike, her government implemented a raft of repressive anti-union legislation.
Stuart Hall described Thatcherism as a project of ‘authoritarian populism’, distinguished from classical fascism only by its retention of most of the formal representative institutions, like an elected parliament. Thatcher’s ability to more or less absorb the fascist National Front into the Conservative party demonstrated exactly how this strategy, that sought convergence with the far right whilst maintaining the outward appearance of standard constitutional government, operated. As Ishay Landa has argued, her project used a form of mass politics to anti-mass ends: it turned popular power back on the people in order to create authoritarian forms of government. This is perfectly demonstrated by Thatcher’s reforms to labour law, which were tidied up into the Trade Union Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. This act marked the conclusion of a period in which a popular majority had been used to deal a colossal blow to the single greatest source of popular power in a capitalist society.
This legislation has yet to be repealed. Tony Blair, of course, never touched it. And now the pendulum has swung even further. Despite the weakness of the unions, Cameron’s 2015 government continued to kick a downed opponent with the 2016 Trade Union Act – a piece of legislation so aggressive that even mild-mannered ex-civil servants called it authoritarian. It’s that 2016 act that introduced the 50% turnout threshold for industrial action ballots – a measure that has prevented strike after strike going ahead over the last five years.
Some legal scholars have argued that the act marked a shift in Conservative law-making towards a “repressive strategy of de-democratisation” that used state coercion to undermine the basis for opposition within the democratic system, criminalise forms of collective action which would have been considered totally normal fifty years ago, and further empower employers to use the courts to hamstring unions.
The Tory 2019 manifesto contained further provisions to make all-out strikes in essential services illegal, and there is no guarantee that this parliament will not see further attacks on what very limited trade union freedoms remain. The continuities with the authoritarian populism of Thatcher are obvious.
A dangerous precedent.
From increasing police powers to taking aim at social movements, the legislative framework of the UK is rapidly sliding towards authoritarianism. If the Corbyn leadership did one thing, it disabused many millions of people of the notion that parliamentary politics is a fair game. The brutal reality is that Britain now resembles something much closer to a managed democracy than a liberal state. With the socialist left locked out of influence in the Labour party and trade unions and social movements facing the twin threats of repression and demobilisation, this is a perilous moment.
In this context, failures of solidarity in the face of trade union repression are profoundly self-defeating: if some unions allow others to be hammered by employers and the state, then they all ultimately suffer.
The Great Ormond Street security guards face an uphill battle. Like many service sector workers, their power during a strike derives from their ability to build a broad coalition of support that can use protest tactics to pressure their employer. This injunction aims to stop them from doing just that. To make it worse, representatives from their local unions have left them high and dry. Now, it is up to the wider movement to step in and provide the solidarity they need.
As Elia puts it: “When faced with attacks like this, we need to come together as a movement to defend our trade union and human rights. Otherwise, we risk returning to a Tolpuddle-esque system where prison hangs over the heads of striking workers.”
If upheld, this injunction sets a precedent that can be referred to in future by employers who want to disempower striking workers. The right to strike has never been enshrined in a constitutional document in the UK, and has long been under sustained attack, but now those attacks seem to be growing in intensity. If workers want to maintain the ability to effectively withdraw their labour, they will have to fight for it.