So as we move into a uncertain era of the labour movement in the United Kingdom the role and ability of trade unions will becoming under increasing pressure to act in their members interests and to call industrial action. But as a trade union member myself i am repeatably reminded of the defeats on a daily basis from years gone by. The movement feels so weak and delicate to me with little umpf if you like. This i feel is down to some of the harshest anti trade union laws in the whole of Europe. Not something i feel we as a country should be proud of at all. As a British citizen and a proud socialist i believe the role trade unions do and can play in peoples lives is hugely important. The laws brought in over the years to clamp down on militancy and workers gaining too much power by the ruling class is very evident today.
The media do not help this i feel either with constant barrages of union bashing in most daily papers weekly.
The anti union laws introduced by Thatcher and Tebbit in the Eighties and made worse by New Labour have been used repeatedly and with increasing frequency by employers to undermine effective trade union action.
As a result of the legislation, the main function of trade union officials is no longer to support and defend the members who pay their wages, but to police the membership on behalf of the bosses. When workers at Heathrow struck in solidarity with their brothers and sisters at Gate Gourmet in 2005, the employers got a court order against this “illegal secondary action,” and the TGWU promptly pulled out every stop to bring the dispute to a rapid and unsatisfactory conclusion. Defeat was once again snatched from the jaws of victory.
The legislation works by allowing the courts to undermine the finances of the union involved. For the union bureaucrats, the defence of the union’s financial apparatus is far more important than the defence of the union members, since it is from the apparatus that they derive their privileges. So instead of confronting the judiciary and taking on the law (and if the T&G had pulled out its entire membership in 2005 to defend itself from the attack of the judges, it could have put paid to the legislation once and for all), the bureaucracy in almost every instance takes the path of disciplining its own members instead of leading a determined fight back.
New Labour made the legislation far worse by requiring unions to submit details to the employers of the workplaces of all those who have been sent ballot papers. Since it is almost impossible for unions to maintain membership records that are 100% accurate at all times, this gives a carte blanche to the employers to challenge ballots, even when the ‘discrepancies’ wouldn’t make a scrap of difference to the outcome anyway. This was how the RMT signallers’ strike – which was called against rail cuts and in the interest of safety – was undermined last year.
Judges have even had the arrogance to decide whether they think a strike is ‘proportionate’ to the issues in dispute. In passing judgement against BA cabin crew in December 2009, Mrs Justice Cox declared, “A strike of this kind over the 12 days of Christmas is fundamentally more damaging to BA and the wider public than a strike taking place at almost any other time of the year.” So the judges now no longer restrict themselves to arcane points of law and procedure, but have taken it upon themselves to ban strikes if it looks like they might be effective!
Unions don’t always cower before the law however. When the Prison Officers Association struck in 2007 it did so without even holding a ballot. Ministers declared the action illegal, but in the face of such determined action they didn’t dare to take the union to court. There is a lesson in that for all of us
The RMT tipped the scales a little way in our favour last month with the landmark decision in the Court of Appeal to overturn the injunction that had been granted in the High Court in January preventing a 48 hour strike on Docklands Light Railway. As Bob Crow explained: “The Serco Docklands injunction on balloting process would have taken the anti-union laws in this country to within a whisker of effectively banning the right to strike if it had been allowed to stand and would have tightened the noose around the necks of nurses, firefighters, ambulance crew, home helps and others engaged in fighting back to the point of strangulation. This victory today helps clear the path for those workers to take action.”
John McDonnell’s Private Members’ Bill is an attempt to tip the balance further still in our favour. The bill proposes reducing regulatory burdens on trade unions in relation to the balloting and notice requirements for lawful industrial action. It would extend the provision for small accidental errors contained in section 232B of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. The burden of proof in applications by an employer to restrain strike action by injunction would be changed, so that the employer would have to show that the union has failed to achieve ‘substantial compliance’ with the ballot and notice requirements. The Bill is unlikely to be passed into law however. It ran out of time in its first reading last October and is unlikely to achieve a second reading.
Personally i feel people are being actively discouraged away from trade unions it seems by our media barrons who control the papers and the tv and radio alot of the time influencing the way a lot of us think unfortunatly. When you begin to break out of that mould of thinking like i have and think independantly you begin to realise workers rights and trade union rights are so tight now you wonder if this was 30 + years ago workers would not have stood for what we stand for now. Complete union victimisation is not uncommon in big workplaces across the land. We read about this weekly in our paper - The socialist with excellent industrial news from workplaces across the country. It is almost like they are making it almost a crime to be in a uniona nd to have rights. With the oncoming cuts the roles of a union will become more accurately defined hopefully with impending action on the horizon.
One of the best unions going Bob Crows own union who the socialist party enjoy good links with, the RMT, points out that British trade unions are restricted by some of the worst anti-union laws in the western world. Whilst not unnecessarily jeopardising union finances, painfully built up over previous decades by members' sacrifices, the union leaders need to be flexible and be prepared to act when required.
The RMT does not make a fetish of the law and does not use the law to block their members taking action if it can help it. But that is not the case in many other unions.
Unison does not allow its branches to initiate strike ballots, maintaining that only the regional officers can do so. Far too often the result is that branches either never get the ballot authorised, or it takes so long that the original reason for it has long been forgotten and the employer gets away without opposition from the union. This leads to demoralisation and members' lack of confidence in their own union.
But this will not always be the case. Tens of thousands of workers in the public sector, in councils and the health service, face massive attacks on their jobs and conditions.
They will not stand idly by whilst the employers do what they want. If the union leaders do not give a lead and organise official strike action from above then it will happen from below, without the union backing and despite the anti-trade union laws.