As long as there have been capitalists (employers running business for private profit) and workers, there has been a struggle between them.
About how long the working day is. About how much we’re paid. About how hard we’re made to work.
As bosses squeezed workers to get more profit out of us, workers organised to fight back. An individual worker has little power, but when we organise collectively into trade unions we can force concessions from the bosses.
When workers in a workplace, an industry, or a trade group together in an organisation (with regular meetings, subscriptions, elected representatives, and so on), that is called a trade union.
Trade unions are how we won weekends, pensions, sick pay. They have won changes in the law to bring in health and safety protections and end child labour.
The struggle for power at the workplace is about more than pay and working conditions. It is about who wields power over some of society’s most important decisions: What are we going to make? How are we going to make it? And who will benefit from our work?
We struggle at the workplace so we can have a say in those decisions. There are good reasons bosses and right-wing governments fear strong union organisation and seek to attack unions’ ability to organise. Across the world and across history, trade union struggles and mass strikes have brought down dictators, stopped wars, and won voting rights. They dismantled racist apartheid in South Africa.
Until 1829 unions were completely illegal in Britain. Unions acquired more or less reliable legal rights to take effective action only after more decades of struggle, in 1906.
Since 1980 the Conservatives have turned the clock back. The 2016 Trade Union Act was the latest in a long line of laws introduced to undermine the power of unions. These laws are intended to weaken the resistance of working people so the capitalists have more power. And, on the whole, so far, since 1980, they have done exactly that.
Now the anti-union laws make it unlawful to strike for wider political and social issues. On climate change, school strikers have called on workers to take action alongside them. And some workers have. But strictly speaking it was illegal.
Week-long protests by Extinction Rebellion cost the economy around £12 million — but a single day’s strike on the Tube would hit the London economy by £300 million. No wonder the laws forbid workers taking political action to save the planet.
The laws also make it difficult to organise even around our workplace issues. In summer 2018, civil servants voted by a huge majority to strike for better pay, with over 50,000 voting yes to just 8,000 against. But under the 2016 law they could not hold a lawful strike, because the number voting either way was (just) under 50% (ballot papers must by law be distributed by post, not in the workplace, and people forget, lose the papers, move house, feel too unsure to vote, etc.).
The laws also delay workers taking industrial action. Postal ballots, “cooling off” periods and red tape around notifying employers mean many disputes run out of steam or time before lawful action can be taken. So the main active union person in your workplace can be sacked, and you’re legally banned from doing anything about it until it’s too late.
The years of Tory rule, and Tony Blair’s refusal to repeal Tory anti-union laws, have driven down levels of workplace organisation in terms of number of trade union representatives, membership of unions, and strike days, to historic lows.
That is the main reason for so many workers these days enduring long hours, precarious work and high levels of in-work poverty.
Freedom for workers to organise will hugely increase our power to rein in profiteering corporations; to reduce the scandalously high level of workplace deaths, injuries and illnesses; to fight inequalities; and to confront the threat of climate change.
Unions have gone through downturns and defeats and risen again in the past, in many times and many countries. Britain’s trade union movement can rebuild itself. Defeating the anti-union laws is an essential part of that.
We call for the complete and rapid repeal of all anti-union laws and for strong legal rights for workers to join, recruit to and be represented by a union. It should be a basic human and legal right for workers to strike at times and for demands of their own choosing, including in solidarity with any other workers and for broader social and political goals.