By Sacha Ismail
If we build a strong campaign to repeal the anti-trade union laws, in line with the policy passed unanimously at Labour Party conference last year (and policy passed in 2015 and 2005), we will face all kinds of objections from the press, the Tories, etc, backed up by outrage designed to intimidate people and prevent rational discussion. The danger is that a Corbyn leadership/government will retreat before such outrage – a danger signalled already by the fact the Labour Party is not campaigning for this demand now, despite the conference policy. Here we tackle some of the likely arguments we will face, from the right and indeed in the labour movement too.
1. You can’t have strikes without a ballot!
Workers should have democratic control over when and how they strike. Clearly the Thatcher governments did not introduce a legal requirement for postal ballots in order to encourage that! Quite the opposite. Postal ballots are designed to slow down and atomise the process of deciding on action – and if possible prevent it altogether – with workers sitting at home by themselves rather than taking part in a collective process with their workmates.
Why can’t we have online voting? Why can’t we have ballot boxes in workplaces? And in fact, ballots are not the only form of democratic decision. Before the anti-union laws people often voted in mass meetings. In fact it would be perfectly possible to combine the two – a mass meeting followed by people voting by ballot there and then. Sometimes a delegate meeting or conference of some sort might need to decide. There may be times when workers feel or judge there is a need to simply walk out, eg in order to take quick and decisive action against some attack from their employers. Or they may come out when other workers appeal to them with pickets. The law should protect these rights as much as possible, not outlaw them.
These things should be decided by workers and their unions, not by the state.
We should also note that the idea of postal ballots with extensive notifications and waiting periods is an imposition of Thatcherism. Even the Tory government that imposed anti-union laws in 1927 after the defeat of the General Strike did not introduce compulsory ballots. The idea a left Labour government would leave them in place is absurd, and an indication of how far things have shifted to the right. In fact that applies to many aspects of this discussion. We need to shift the discussion leftwards.
2. Mass picketing and flying pickets means intimidation
To be effective, a picket needs to discourage people from going into work. There are various forms this can take. Certainly large numbers of pickets are almost always desirable. To limit the right to picket is to try to make pickets ineffective and undermine strikes – which is the entire point of these rules.
The ban on flying pickets means that strikers cannot target other workplaces and institutions, even those with a link to their employer, and so cannot go and explain their case to other workers and ask for support. Again, it is about making strikes ineffective. We should oppose that.
3. The “closed shop” violates people’s right to decide
Before it was banned there were issues with the “closed shop” – compulsory union membership in order to work in a workplace or company – being used bureaucratically for eg top union officials to get radical troublemakers excluded or sacked by denying them union membership. Self-evidently that is not why it was banned. Again, it was about undermining unions’ position.
It may or may not be a good idea for a union to insist on compulsory union membership in a given workplace or company, but that should be up to the union – or more to the point, the workers organised in the union – to decide, not the state. And is the demand really so outrageous in all circumstances? Do people have the right to eg not pay taxes? Or to ignore health and safety laws? All workers in a well unionised workplace benefit from the union’s presence and strength and so it is perfectly understandable why a strong union might insist on people joining.
4. The state must insist on unions being democratic
Again, do we really believe Thatcher cared about union democracy? Or governments which for decades have used any and every legal technicality to undermine even overwhelming democratic votes to go on strike? For sure the undemocratic nature of some unions helped justify the introduction of laws to partially control union constitutions (laws which among other things insist on regular elections), but the purpose of this control was to tame unions, not democratise them.
In the ’70s some unions were undemocratic, and some unions are undemocratic now – what the law has done is changed the specifics and form of that, while also suppressing union independence. We need democratic unions – but this must be controlled and enforced by union members themselves. That is not what the laws on union structures and processes are about.
5. Strikes for political goals are undemocratic
Are demonstrations for political goals undemocratic? What about direct action and civil disobedience? In fact a society where working people have extensive ability to organise and take action to influence what the government does is far more democratic than one where that ability is curtailed or suppressed. To deny that suggests a very shallow conception of democracy – which of course is precisely what we are encouraged to have. If you accept popular action to influence and pressure governments: strikes are the most effective form of such action.
In addition, is not at all easy to say what is a political and issue and what isn’t. When political strikes are banned then in reality workers’ ability to fight for their own immediate rights is also severely limited – as we see all the time when strikes over immediate workplace issues are declared political and therefore illegal by the courts (or by union officials).
6. It would be unpopular
It’s not clear that this is true at all, rather than a “fact” which has simply been declared. Unfortunately it seems to be influencing some at the top of the Labour Party.
The “it’s unpopular” argument is not a trump card. It is only ever used selectively. The press often assumes politicians are obsessed with what’s popular and what’s not, and there is of course some truth to that, and yet the huge unpopularity of eg privatising the NHS has not stopped governments doing it. Tony Blair was a great fan of citing public opinion to justify right-wing policies – but even when there really was opinion on his side this served to justify policies he wanted anyway, to appeal to the right-wing press or simply because he supported them. There is also, no doubt, some element of such politicians genuinely believing, in defiance of evidence, that only right-wing policies can be popular. Meanwhile public opinion never stopped Blair carrying out unpopular right-wing policies like privatisation and increasing inequality.
In fact the Blairites worked hard to shift both official political discourse and wider public opinion to the right. More generally, what is popular and unpopular is not a fixed matter of black and white – it is complex, shifting and shaped by political initiative. Left-wing movements have a duty to help educate and reshape public opinion, particularly when the question involved is an important one. The anti-union laws surely are important: should workers who want to organise and struggle have legal space to do so effectively or not?
It is not such a leap to imagine that the idea of workers being able to organise and take action against an out-of-control corporate elite – or for instance for goals such as saving the NHS – could potentially be very popular, if substantial forces made the case and argued for it.
Which side are you on?
If you’re on the side of workers standing up for themselves, then repealing the anti-union laws should be a no brainer. The kind of heroic workers’ struggles we saw in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s faced difficulties enough without the laws we have now. We need to do everything we can to make the smaller struggles taking place today and the bigger struggles we will have again in the future as easy and effective as possible. That is obviously not just a matter of the laws that exist, but laws are an important part of it. The possibility that a Corbyn government could leave the bulk of anti-union laws in place – and at the moment the leadership are not saying one way or another, with various evidence that they are hesitating – is cause for concern. We need to organise to make sure Labour conference’s decisions on this are carried out.
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• More on the anti-union laws and campaigning to repeal them here.