As Unite members who are airport baggage handlers, check-in staff and cargo crew at Swissport and BA mixed fleet cabin crew join workers at Southern Rail, Crown Post Offices, Royal Mail’s Accrington Delivery Office and Weetabix in potential strike action over Christmas, while our own action at Fujitsu continues, backbench Tories are baying for ever greater restrictions on workers’ rights.
The United Kingdom has some of the worst anti-union laws in Europe, put in place by Tory governments and left in place by New Labour. While employers have the flexibility to make changes quickly, workers face innumerable obstacles if they want to resist.
If workers want to strike, complex notification rules create delays and opportunities for injunctions. The delays really matter, as many “perishable” issues become fait accompli before workers can legally take any action. In England, Scotland and Wales employers can push through even the biggest redundancies in just 45 days. Today my own employer, Fujitsu, informed reps that it proposes to make the first of its 1800 UK job cuts on 17th February in parts of the company where workers don’t yet have union recognition.
Employers can structure themselves into multiple legal entities or outsource work, but workers employed via different employers have to ballot and strike separately. As an example, as well as using agency workers, Fujitsu set up a wholly owned subsidiary called FSESL. To involve the whole workforce in action we would have to ballot members from multiple employers including Fujitsu Services Limited, FSESL, and Kelly Services, and we would have to show that we had a narrowly defined trade dispute with each one.
The Tories’ Trade Union Act 2016, which is expected to come into force in March, will set such high hurdles for strike votes that if the same rules applied to the House of Commons, the building would be empty. Not only will workers need to vote by a majority for strike, but a majority of workers have to vote using deliberately off-putting postal ballot papers. In some industries, at least 40% of those eligible to vote would have to vote yes, so if there was a 50% turnout you would need an 80% yes vote to be allowed to strike.
Disruption for a few days or weeks by strikers is denounced as “holding the country to ransom” but ongoing chaos, waste and destruction caused by corporate greed across our public services and private industry raises barely an eyebrow. Tories and the right wing press seem keen to support workers’ right to protest against injustice, just so long as we do it in such a way that we have no chance of winning. The Tories are doubtless encouraged by the unions’ feeble opposition to the Trade Union Act, which consisted of little more than lobbying and media work.
The fact that since Len McCluskey took over as General Secretary the union has stopped repudiating members accused of taking unofficial action was a real step forward. Before this I had been expelled from the “left” caucus on the Amicus executive for refusing to repudiate members at the Wembley stadium construction site. What made this all the more absurd was that they weren’t even on strike – they had been locked out, while a union official was busy escorting scabs across the picket line they set up.
It’s not too late to remedy the failure to put up a real fight against the Trade Union Act, precisely because the Act does not stand in isolation.
The attacks on workers’ right to organise and strike are part of a wider assault on civil rights. The Tories want to scrap the Human Rights Act and leave the European Convention of Human Rights. Prevent means snooping, harassment and censorship for 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 now we have the snoopers’ charter (RIPA). 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 restrict our right to protest. The Terrorism Act, which would have criminalised support for everyone from Gandhi and Mandela to the International Brigades, remains on the statute books. The state helps employers to blacklist workers. Tribunal fees and legal aid cuts restrict access to justice. We need to get off the back foot – Unite should be working with the campaigns around all these issues to organise conferences around the country and launch a positive movement for civil rights. Unite has the resources to make this happen. Members need to support and learn from campaigns involving civil disobedience. If the government is putting effective trade unionism outside the law we need to educate and train ourselves how to respond – defying the Act requires action, not just slogans.