The Tories and the Union Barons: A Love Story

The Tories are always banging on about union barons and the menace that they are to society. On the one hand they cajole their members into strike action and on the other they cause widespread disruption to working people. Whenever reforms to the strike laws are proposed it’s under the guise of reducing the power of the barons and making the unions more democratic. Actually the Tories have systematically boosted the power of the barons and reduced the democracy in unions whilst giving the bosses enhanced powers.

The Trade Union Act 2017, which came into force on 1st March, continues the march in this direction but it’s a path we can plot through the decades. Trade union democracy takes place on the shop floor where activist workers keep their members informed and in return the workers tell the activists what they want the union to achieve.

A few decades ago a simple show of hands could result in a walkout. What could be more democratic than the workers deciding together what to do and then immediately taking that action? Direct democracy followed by direct action. This was effectively outlawed with rules on paper, postal ballots and 7 days’ notice of any action (although it didn’t stop it entirely). These rules were made in the name of curtailing the power of the barons but they did the opposite. The ballot had to be called with authority from the centre of the union. The results had to be interpreted by the centre. Authority to strike was taken away from the workers and given to people in an office miles from the action.

The new Act goes much further. It allows for workers who organise action outside of the rules to be sacked more easily, placing them at the whims of their union’s bureaucratic centre for their own safety. It means that the union tops and the experts that work for them will need to be consulted much more to ensure that everyone is safe from the sack and prosecution.

14 days’ notice is needed from a union before they take action. Any strike ballot needs a turnout of 50% before it’s legally valid. The ballot paper needs to describe exactly what the action will be so workers know what they are voting for. Unions will have just four weeks to take any action following a ballot. Unions will need to make detailed reports to the government regulator for their sector on expenditure and funds, which can be taken if laws are broken.

What we will see is fewer ballots and strikes as the centre of unions weigh up whether they can reach the threshold in turnout. They might get more strategic in how they operate, choosing particular sectors where they have more militant members for official disputes. This of course takes away from the immediate shop floor democracy in a workplace. It requires highly skilled suits to look at a workplace from afar, calling the local activists for information when necessary. It takes all the power away from the workers on the ground who may be seen by the suits as lacking what is necessary for a successful ballot and strike, despite having clear grounds for a dispute.

There are parts of these new laws that the barons will dislike (it undoubtedly makes their job harder) but we didn’t see a massive resistance to them during the passage of the Bill through Parliament. There was lots of noise and some amendments were made to some of the more extreme ideas the Tories were floating around about the way pickets work and what can be put on social media during a strike. The key question is how much would the unions repeal if they could? I suspect that a Corbyn or McDonnell Labour government would repeal substantial amounts of the Tories anti-trade union laws but not all. It’s not in the interest of the highly-paid union bosses to get rid of their own powers and they wouldn’t. They exist to negotiate with the powers of big business and government; they exist to get knighthoods and to be elevated to the House of Lords. They wouldn’t destroy their own cosy existence.

The result of all this for real trade unionists and workers in the UK is the same as ever. The labour movement grew from people taking matters into their own hands, in solidarity with their fellows. Here we are again. We have everything to gain because our rights have been crushed. It will take law breakers, militant agitators and saboteurs to forge a new path. We will need to circumvent the power of capital and government and the power of the big business unions to succeed and we must. Whether from small unions or the business unions our efforts should be to maximise the chances of action taking place in whatever form it needs to take place.


Pic: Unite leader Len McCluskey, by Gary Knight

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