“Workers’ rights under permanent lockdown”: the pandemic, key workers and the right to strike

By Matt Wrack, Fire Brigades Union General Secretary

The truth is that bosses and governments feel brave enough to put their workers in danger because they face too few consequences. And despite the praise heaped on nurses and other key workers, our collective workplace rights have been under their own permanent lockdown, with decades of laws shackling unions in the public sector.

Today, trade unions are required to follow a series of complex steps before any type of action can be called. These steps, nigh-on impossible to clear at a time like this, were designed to be incredibly difficult for unions to make work, with power weighted in favour of employers.

Under these rules, an employer must be notified of the existence of a trade dispute; the union must then take detailed steps to prepare for, and complete, a ballot, including providing full detail to the employer of the groups of members who will be balloted. This is not a simple process.

Unions must meet arbitrary voting thresholds before action can be taken (plenty of right-wing politicians aren’t in favour of voting thresholds when it comes to their own elections) and, while increasing numbers of workers today often primarily interact with their employers through a smartphone, they can only be balloted on industrial action by post; the government has so far refused to allow any form of online balloting.

These hurdles also give employers an abundance of opportunities to challenge a union in court. Recently, postal workers secured a momentous 97 per cent vote in favour of industrial action, but the High Court ruled that there had been “improper interference” in the ballot and it could not stand; industrial action would be unlawful.

The current crisis throws these issues into sharp relief and we see that where trade union laws have been weakened, workers face almost identical attacks.

On both sides of the Atlantic, years of deference to the demands of the market over the rights of workers sees Amazon able to put profit before workers in the most serious and dangerous of circumstances.

In the 1980s, as a wave of anti-union laws were introduced, those of us who opposed them pointed out that they would particularly weaken workers when urgent action was needed, like cases of victimisation, non-payment of wages, or over safety issues. In these circumstances the best response would often be simply to walk out and stop the job immediately. And rightly so…

Many speak of this as a time of “national unity” and we certainly do need a huge collective effort to defeat the threat from Covid-19. But workers on the front line should be wary of plaudits, especially when they are coming from Establishment politicians whose entire political strategy involves weakening and undermining the working class and the trade union movement: our interests are very different from theirs.

For the good of workers everywhere, we need to free trade unions from the undemocratic and draconian anti-union laws. If the clapping every Thursday night is anywhere near serious it should mean respecting workers for the long term and restoring their collective rights.

• Excerpted from a longer article published in the Morning Star.

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