Civil Rights and the Trade Union Bill

Ian Allinson discusses the Tories attempts to attack our right to organise in the context of civil rights 

Strikers at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton in April 2014
Strikers at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton in April 2014

Since the election the Tories have moved swiftly to attack civil rights. The Trade Union Bill 2015 is the centrepiece of measures restricting the right to resist. Despite our inadequate response to the first five years of austerity, the government is worried about its ability to force through five more. The cuts agenda – transferring wealth and power from the majority to elites – relies on tilting the battlefield even further against working class people. We can best oppose this with a joined-up defence of civil rights rather than just opposing the new bill.

The TUC has produced a useful briefing about the bill and related proposals.

The unions’ response has been encouraging. Unison’s Dave Prentis said “If this right-wing government moves the goalposts … we will not say now that we will only act within the law“. Unite’s conference removed the phrase “so far as may be lawful” from the union rulebook after a speech from Len McCluskey about why it is right to break unjust laws.

When a repressive government increasingly outlaws effective protest, it helps when union leaders argue for defiance. The impact goes far beyond union members, legitimising direct action more generally. However, it would be foolish to pin our hopes on union leaders. If they failed to organise effective action when it was legal, can we expect them to do so if it’s not?

The bill requires all industrial action ballots to achieve a 50% turnout. Public and private sector workers who provide or support “important public services” (health, 5-16 state funded education, transport, fire, border security and nuclear decommissioning) face an additional requirement for 40% of eligible voters to vote in favour. Research by Ralph Darlington, using a database of 158 strike ballots between 1997-2015, shows that the new law would have removed legal protection from the majority of strikers and their unions.

Some will use the new restrictions as an excuse for inaction. Already some are arguing it will be impossible to meet the new turnout thresholds with the cumbersome postal ballot process. It will certainly be difficult, but it isn’t impossible. In 2009 BA cabin crew – scattered across the world – achieved a 79% turnout. In 2012 the Chicago teachers beat an even higher threshold with a 92% turnout. The recent strikes on London Underground exceeded the proposed thresholds.

Whether workers aim to win by meeting the new requirements or by defying them, they will require strong workplace organisation. Rhetoric from the top helps, but won’t be enough.

If the bill passes, it will encourage unions to go for local, regional and sectional strikes rather than the big national ones, so that resources can be concentrated to organise and exceed the ballot thresholds. Ironically, smaller disputes are easier for the rank and file to control, increasing the likelihood of going beyond the law. The limit on action to four months is intended to obstruct long running disputes such as the national public sector ones in recent years. But it strengthens the case for strong action and rapid escalation early in a dispute. The requirement to notify employers fourteen rather than seven days before each action is intended to help employers prepare to withstand it, but strengthens the case for intensive action rather than relying on the disruption of odd hours or days of action. Many proposed restrictions could backfire if workers and their unions respond robustly.

There are many other restrictions in the bill to strengthen employers against workers. The bill aims to tie unions up in red tape, inflexibility and delays. Extra requirements give employers more opportunities to seek injunctions or damages. There’s a separate proposal to amend regulations to allow employers to hire temporary scabs through agencies during disputes – a recipe for provoking conflict on picket lines. The bill strengthens restrictions on picketing and the government is consulting about creating new criminal offences aimed at pickets.

Media coverage has focussed on the draft bill itself, but many of the worst proposals are in the consultation documents.

The consultation on “tackling intimidation of non-striking workers” proposes extending anti-union legislation to cover “leverage” tactics increasingly adopted by Unite and other unions.

The government wants to push unions to police their own members, imposing massive supervision and reporting requirements along with liability for financial penalties. The government plans to extend restrictions to protests away from the workplace (even if involving non-members) and restrict the right for protests to “disrupt” “normal business activities”. Unions would be forced to publish in advance detailed plans for protests, the use and content of web sites and social media!

As well as attacking workers’ right to strike, the proposed restrictions on the right to protest break new ground too.

As well as opposition from The Campaign for Trade Union Freedom, to which many unions are affiliated, the bill has prompted a growing number of union branches to launch a new Right To Strike campaign The TUC is planning a national rally and lobby at Westminster Central Hall on Monday 2 November.

Workers originally had to win their rights by taking action without any legal protection. They relied on their strength and solidarity to resist repression. The Tories are taking industrial relations back to an era where explosive, militant, action – usually outside the law – was the only way to win for most workers.

It is important that trade unionists come together to kill the bill, and prepare to defy it if passed. However, civil rights aren’t best defended with a fragmented, sectional approach.

The attacks on workers’ right to organise and strike are part of a much wider assault on civil rights. The Tories want to scrap the Human Rights Act and weaken or leave the European Convention of Human Rights. The extension of Prevent is increasing the snooping, harassment and censorship facing Muslims. We’ve had an international wave of anger against police violence, racism and deaths in custody. WikiLeaks exposed the level of state surveillance, while the role of undercover cops spying on peaceful protesters is gradually being exposed. CCTV is everywhere, and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) allows widespread snooping. Migrants (and anyone suspected of being a migrant) face increased harassment, abuse, incarceration and deportation. Corporate secrecy blocks our rights to information about government actions and spending. Kettling, arrests and bail conditions are used to restrict the right to protest. The Anti-Terrorism Act, which would have criminalised support for everyone from Gandhi and Mandela to the International Brigades, remains on the statute books. The state works with employers to blacklist workers thought to be organising or raising safety concerns. Fees for Employment Tribunals and cuts to legal aid restrict access to justice.

There are excellent campaigns over many of these issues, but we constantly find ourselves on the back foot. The Tories and the media have a generalised ideological attack on civil rights, which they implement by attacking and isolating specific groups. Wouldn’t we all be stronger if as well as campaigning over “our own” issues, everyone fighting for civil rights came together, educated each other, built solidarity, and make a positive case instead?


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