On the eve of the UK general election, postal workers voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action — by 97 percent on a 75 percent turnout — comfortably scaling the bar set by the 2016 Trade Union Act. But a High Court judge still declared their strike to be illegitimate on trumped-up grounds.
The judge even cited the upcoming election as a reason to ban the strike, claiming it would interfere with postal voting.
British workers trying to defend themselves in the workplace have to overcome a coercive legal apparatus that’s been painstakingly constructed over four decades to prevent them from doing so. While unions like the CWU still undertake bold and inventive campaigns to overcome the hurdles deliberately placed before their members, these legal constraints have had their desired effect.
In 2017, for example, strike action in the UK fell to its lowest levels since the 1890s, with only 33,000 workers across the country involved in industrial disputes.
As in so many other fields, the general election gives us a choice between two starkly contrasting visions for British society: empowerment of workers, or an accelerated clampdown on their freedom to organise.
Raising the Bar
The 2016 Trade Union Act passed by the Conservatives raised the threshold for strike action to an even higher level than before, despite coming at a time when industrial unrest was already at historic lows. It was mainly intended for media consumption and electoral advantage, and as a statement of intent to employers: workers would be kept firmly in their place.
In particular, the Act imposed an arbitrary strike ballot threshold — for ballots to be valid, 50 percent of all eligible workers must take part, and a majority of those who do must vote in favour — while refusing to make any provision for online ballots, in order to drive down turnout.
But this still isn’t enough for the Conservatives. The party’s election manifesto commits it to banning all-out rail strikes altogether, compelling rail unions to operate a “minimum service” during stoppages. The RMT is currently engaged in an ongoing campaign to keep guards on trains, while the government and rail operators want to expand driver-only operation, putting the profits of franchise owners above the safety and security of passengers.
Labour’s platform could not be more different. Its workers’ rights manifesto proposes the most ambitious extension of workplace and trade-union rights in many years, finally turning back the tide of the last forty years. The party has pledged to repeal the 2016 Act and to remove barriers to union recognition, while limiting the ability of employers to override strike ballots on the strength of technicalities (as Royal Mail succeeded in doing last month).
Union rights are a question of basic civil liberties. The current British laws constitute a very real set of hindrances both to freedom of association and the fundamental right to withdraw labour (a right reaffirmed by the European Court of Human Rights just last year). Labour’s proposals would merely bring Britain into line with many other European countries.
The Conservative promise to restrict union rights even further certainly represents a pitch to suburban rail commuters in marginal constituencies that they desperately need to win. But it also feeds into the interminable right-wing culture war.
Such tactics are nothing new: Tory election campaigns for the last four decades have persistently invoked the threat of “trade union power”, brandishing the spectre of a misremembered 1970s, when union “barons” supposedly rode roughshod over terrified employers and long-suffering service users. This is a well-honed narrative that still has a powerful hold over the middle-aged, middle-class voters who form such a large part of the Conservative base today.
Of course, the reality of British trade unionism today is massively at odds with this residual fantasy of rampant militancy. However, many of those whose experiences of the 1970s and ‘80s passed through the interpretative filter of Thatcherism seem all too keen to believe that it still holds true. It continues to serve as a useful right-populist wedge issue among a certain demographic, playing on their long-held fears to corral them into the Tory camp.
That’s why a renewed Conservative assault on trade unionism would go down well with the increasingly cranky and highly strung supporters, who are eager for opportunities to lash out. For some, it would be a chance to relive Thatcher’s glory days, unleashing their pent-up frustrations by sticking the boot into a convenient scapegoat. If the economy goes south after a Tory hard Brexit, as it may very well do, there will be a pressing need for such scapegoats.
Breaking the Link
Labour’s party-union link could also soon find itself in the Tory crosshairs. The Collins reforms implemented by Ed Miliband as Labour leader were partly intended to loosen that link before the Tories could get to it. Ironically, the effect of those reforms was to make possible the election of Jeremy Corbyn, and the strengthening of union influence inside the party.
Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have already flaunted their willingness to defy liberal-democratic niceties, so the established convention that reforms to party funding should be a matter of cross-party consensus is just another taboo waiting to be trashed.
Curtailing — or at least severely restricting — the ability of trade unions to fund political parties would make good political sense for the Tories. By leaving the Labour Party mostly reliant on individual donations, perhaps with some extra state funding to sugar the pill, it would discourage Labour from adopting left-wing, pro-union and pro-worker positions. It would also strengthen the hand of those figures within the party who would be very much at ease with such pressures.
Five more years of Tory government, as well as being a social catastrophe for the poorest and most vulnerable, would most likely be a disaster for trade unionism and workers’ rights in general. It may even have existential consequences for the labour movement as a whole. A socialist-led Labour government, on the other hand, would restore to workers the right to effective self-defence, and the dignity at work which they’ve lacked for decades. The choice for Britain’s future could not be starker.