Network Rail bosses’ successful use of anti-trade union laws to undermine a planned strike by signallers was the latest in a recent spate of actions by employers (particularly in the rail industry) that have seen High Court injunctions become a default bosses’ response to any big strike.
The first planned strike by British Airways cabin crew workers was also declared illegal in a similar way.
In both cases, employers cited “irregularities” with the balloting process as their reason for seeking the injunctions, and the courts agreed that the ballots had indeed been “irregular”. But what does that “irregularity” mean?
In BA’s case, the argument was that some workers balloted (a few hundred out of a workforce of over 10,000) had, although they were still BA employees at the time of the ballot, accepted voluntary redundancies and were therefore not part of the relevant bargaining unit. But we can say with relative certainty that if Unite had excluded them from the ballot, BA bosses would have sought an injunction on the basis that the whole workforce had not been given a vote!
We can also say with absolute certainty that when bosses and courts conspire to hamstring workers’ action, their motives have nothing to do with “irregularities” in the balloting process.
Bosses are not expressing their commitment to rigorous democratic procedure, but rather acting as intelligent class fighters and using the law as a class-biased ideological and practical weapon in class warfare.
The judge who passed the injunction against the BA strike said very little about the “irregularities” with the ballot. She said, “a strike of this kind over the 12 days of Christmas is fundamentally more damaging to BA and the wider public than a strike taking place at almost any other time of the year.” In other words avoid, at all costs, any “damage” to BA’s profits.
There may well have been some balloting errors with the RMT’s processes at Network Rail — how can it be avoided when balloting a workforce of thousands in a changing industry? But, errors or not, thousands of workers voted for strike action. That is an indisputable fact. It is also an indisputable fact that no workers whatsoever voted for — or had any kind of say in — Network Rail bosses’ decisions to massacre their jobs and terms and conditions.
What recourse do we have when our bosses do something we don’t like? None — other than the right to withdraw our labour. Bosses are now using the law in such a way as to effectively imply that this right no longer exists; workers must accept their bosses’ rule unquestioningly, uncritically and unconditionally in every circumstance. Any society which allows its legal system to be used in this way cannot be meaningfully called a democracy. If Britain is a democracy, it is democratic only for the rich.
The situation in Britain is not equivalent to the situation in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Cuba or other countries where attempts to organise independent trade unions will land you in jail (or worse). But the recent turn by bosses towards exploiting the full anti-union potential that has always been latent in the law (introduced by Tories and stoically defended and preserved through half a generation of Labour government) is a sign of a ruling-class aggressively re-asserting its right to rule unchallenged.
The turn to legal repression comes in tandem with a renewed attack on the Labour-union link from the Tories and Lib Dems, which is a very thinly-veiled attack on the right of unions to assert themselves in politics. Whatever one thinks about why the unions are affiliated to Labour or how they use that affiliation, the right of unions to establish a political wing — accountable to and controlled by them — must be defended against Tory and Liberal attacks (and, indeed, against attacks by New Labour politicians seeking to sever the union link from above).
The question fundamentally posed by recent developments is one of power. Who rules in society? In whose interests do they rule?
The trade unions must counterpose to the bosses and their state (with its undemocratic, unaccountable judiciary) not a meek promise to run our ballots better in future but a challenge for power and a vision of a society in which the needs of working people and our right to decent lives — rather than the “needs” of profit and bosses’ “right” to make money — are the primary concern.
Build a national campaign
John Usher, Director, United Campaign to Repeal the Anti-Trade Union Laws
The reference in a recent Guardian editorial to the requirements around balloting as “reasonable” is clearly outrageous. It’s blindingly obvious that what we’re seeing now is an increasing trend for employers to use injunctions and for the courts to accept those arguments.
In terms of how workers can respond, you’ve now got some figures even with the TUC saying that one of the responses will be wildcat action. If people do end up being incredibly frustrated by the application of very restrictive anti-union laws, necessity will cause them to break those laws. We would maintain that UK law is actually in breach of international law, including Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights and various ILO conventions, as well as the Social Charter of the European Union.
There are 24 national unions affiliated to the United Campaign, and there’s now a chance to reinvigorate our campaign and put down some roots in the movement. What we’re convinced of is that there will have to be a response on various fronts. One of them will have to be a litigation strategy before the international courts, but that’s slow and people obviously can’t afford to wait on that. Those strategies will have to work in complement with more activist-focused, grassroots strategies.