Despite voting by a 98% majority for strikes, ABM cleaners will be prevented from taking legal industrial action by the Tories’ anti-union laws. Of 620 cleaners balloted, 294 voted for strikes. But because this only amounted to 48% of the total, the result fell short of the 50% turnout threshold required by the 2016 Trade Union Act.
A 98% majority on a 48% turnout would be seen as a legitimate, and indeed overwhelming, mandate in any other area of democratic. It is a far higher majority and turnout, for example, than the one which elected Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London in 2016. The Tories claimed their laws were necessary to ensure strikes had a sufficient level of support in the workplace, but if just 11 more cleaners had voted against the strike, RMT would be able to call action, despite the fact that this would have demonstrated a higher level of opposition rather than support.
There are lessons for the union to learn here. Although a vibrant and energetic campaign to mobilise turnout did take place, most of the work was undertaken by a core of activists. Resources were provided, but next time we must ensure that every branch officer, rep, and activist across the union makes the ballot a priority. We need to build a culture where reps for directly-employed staff such as station staff, drivers, fleet maintenance workers, and others, see organising and empowering cleaners in their workplaces as as much of a responsibility as recruiting and organising their own LU workmates.
Ultimately, however, while the result is bitterly disappointing, our anger and frustration should not be directed inwards, but towards the glaring injustice and affront to democracy that the anti-union laws represent. The cleaners’ ballot result follows swiftly on from the High Court decision to injunct (i.e., ban) a strike of Royal Mail workers, after bosses claimed their union, the CWU, had “interfered” with the ballot process (which sailed past the thresholds of the anti-union laws) by... actively campaigning and encouraging its members to vote yes! This shows that, even when unions meet the thresholds required by the 2016 Act, older laws imposed by Thatcher and Major, and never repealed by Blair or Brown in 13 years of Labour government, can still be used to obstruct workers’ action.
This is the very purpose of the laws: to weight the scales of power in the workplace as greatly as possible in favour of employers. Our bosses don’t have to ballot anyone to force through their cuts; they don’t have to clear any thresholds to sack our members. Invariably they act, or try to act, unilaterally. But when we want to fight back, endless hurdles are put in our way.
We have to combine efforts to meet ballot thresholds with a renewed campaign for the abolition of these unjust laws. We have a chance to take a huge step towards that on 12 December, by electing a Labour government committed to repealing anti-union laws. But we will need to fight to hold that government to account, and to push it to implement Labour conference policy, for the abolition of all anti-union laws, in full. The Free Our Unions campaign, supported by three national trade unions (RMT, IWGB, and FBU) and dozens of union branches and regions, including RMT London Transport Region, provides resources and a vital network to help us do this.
At some point, we will also need to collectively confront the possibility that the only way to overthrow such unjust laws may be to break them.