Courts and Tories attack right to strike

Submitted by Matthew on 26 January, 2011 - 12:42

Courts and the Government are making a two-pronged attack on the right to strike. It becomes more and more urgent for the unions to launch a big political campaign for union rights.

On 19 January, Justice Michael Tugendhat granted Serco Docklands, the operators of the Docklands Light Railway, an injunction (legal order) banning a strike by the rail union RMT due to happen on 20-21 January (see page 2).

Judges’ interpretations have pushed the circumstances in which bosses can get injunctions wider and wider, and this judgment pushed them wider still.

Yes, the RMT had given Serco a list of the members in each grade and location that it had balloted for industrial action, and to explained how it put this information together. No, the employer could not find flaws in the list.

In bigger strike ballots, the employer almost always can find flaws, however meticulous the union is, and that loophole was used last year to ban BA cabin crew strike action. Not this time. The bosses’ lawyers and the judge found a new pretext.

The union’s explanation of how it had compiled the list of workers being balloted was not good enough, the judge said — although the format was exactly the same as the union has used for many years!

Further, the judge said, the union claimed to have updated and audited its membership information. That implied two separate processes, but in fact it was one. Strike banned!

The judge introduced a new criterion by saying that the purpose of the explanation which the union must provide with its list is to allow the employer and the court to monitor the union’s information-gathering.

It’s a common process when the labour movement is on the back foot; the judges reinterpret the laws, again and again, to make them more restrictive.

In case that is not enough, prime minister David Cameron declared in Parliament on 12 January that he was “happy to look at” plans for new anti-strike laws, to come on top of the Thatcher laws which already restrict workers’ rights in Britain more than in any other big wealthy country.

Boris Johnson, the Tory mayor of London, and the bosses’ federation CBI have called for banning strikes unless the ballot shows a 40% (CBI) or 50% (Johnson) majority for strike among all those entitled to vote, not just among those voting.

On that criterion of a majority, neither Johnson nor Cameron would be in office! 19% of people entitled to vote in London chose Johnson in 2008; 23% of those on the electoral roll voted Tory in 2010.

The same day, Cameron co-signed an article with Boris Johnson in The Sun denouncing unions which had talked of striking around the time of the Royal Wedding.

Lib Dem policy is for a new law to empower the government to ban strikes which hit “essential services”. Vince Cable reaffirmed that policy in the run-up to the May 2010 general election.

The government knows it will face strikes against its cuts. With the judges, it is preparing the way to use the law against those strikes.

In this area, more obviously than in any other, the law is no expression of abstract and timeless justice. It is a reflection of the balance of forces between the working class and the bosses, and then, a factor in shaping that balance for the future.

In almost every European Union country, the constitution or the law establishes a right to strike (though with limits, sometimes slight and sometimes, especially in Eastern Europe, serious).

Almost everywhere even employers concede that the right to withdraw your labour is fundamental to enabling workers to operate as people with rights and an effective way of defending those rights, rather than serfs or slaves.

Without that right, whatever the claims of the country generally to be a democracy, tyranny reigns in our working lives.

Britain, Ireland, and Malta are the only European Union countries not to establish in law the right to strike.

Over decades, British workers forced the law to concede, in a grudging, backhanded sort of way, that in practice strikes should be allowed. This was summed up in a law passed in 1906 by a Liberal government under pressure from the then-young Labour Party, giving strikers and unions “immunity” from being sued to repay the cost of strikes to employers.

Thatcher’s Tory government, in the 1980s, through huge confrontations, redefined the law both on the statute books and in practice, restricting strikes hugely.

Then union leaders scandalously allowed Labour to govern for 13 years without repealing Thatcher’s anti-union laws.

Even now, with the Tories back, the union leaders are sleepwalking on the issue. Both the DLR judgement, and Cameron’s speech, passed almost without comment from union leaders.

Left-wing Labour MP John McDonnell, having won a place in the ballot which allows a few backbench MPs to get Bills before Parliament, pushed a Bill simply to stop judges banning strikes on grounds of minor errors in the balloting.

His Bill soon fell, on 22 October, because not enough Labour MPs turned out to back it, and the Labour front bench would not back it. Union leaders let that pass without calling the Labour MPs to account.

Reversing the drift is urgent. Activists in every union should demand that their union leaders get together to launch a strong, visible, lively campaign for the right to strike and to take solidarity action.

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