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Finishing What Thatcher Started

The UK Trade Union Bill is a brazen attempt to crush worker power and restrict democratic rights.

A temporarily closed London Underground station during a February 2014 strike. Tom Page / Flickr

The UK Trade Union Bill, currently working its way through parliament, is almost a caricature of repressive anti-worker legislation. Coming at a time when the Conservative Party is emboldened by its first majority government since 1992, and when its main opposition is in a period of great uncertainty, the bill reads like an exercise in wish fulfillment from people with a longstanding contempt for unions and a desire to finish the job Margaret Thatcher started.

The bill — a key legislative priority of the new government — has overwhelming support from the right-wing press in the UK, as well as pro-business lobbying groups (though it has been sharply criticized by personnel management advocacy groups, on the grounds that it is unnecessary and destructive to workplace relations).

The language and objectives of the bill are framed as a response to a series of large, one-day strikes in the public sector against ongoing austerity measures, as well as recent industrial actions on the London Underground. The government has seized on relatively low turnouts in some of the strike authorization votes as proof that supposedly hard-line union leaders are causing disruption without a mandate from their members.

The bill’s prescriptions are brutal. David Davies, a Tory member of parliament, has even likened aspects of the legislation to Franco’s dictatorship in Spain. And considering the main provisions of the bill, Davies’ comparison is actually not hyperbolic.

The headline measure would introduce new turnout thresholds for valid strike ballots — 50 percent of eligible voters would be required to take part in any strike ballot, or the action would be deemed illegal. Moreover, in “important public services” (yet to be defined), an additional stipulation mandates that 40 percent of the eligible electorate vote in favor of the strike.

For example, if in an “important public service” turnout in a strike ballot is 50 percent, the “yes” side would need to win 80 percent to 20 percent for the strike to be legal. By these measures, around half of work stoppages in Britain since 1997 would have been illegal.

A second provision purports to be about preventing intimidation in the course of industrial disputes. As a justification for this, much is made of widely hyped cases like when Unite activists arrived in 2013 with an inflatable rat near the home of a director of Ineos (a chemicals multinational with whom the union was in dispute).

Despite the flimsiness of the pretext, those in violation of picketing regulations (for example, the rule that no more than six people are allowed on a picket line) would be subject to criminal, rather than civil, law. Strikers would be required to wear high-visibility paraphernalia such as armbands, and individual strike “supervisors” — whose details must be provided to the police — would need to be nominated. Unions would have to give two weeks’ notice for strikes, as well as specify in advance what actions they’re taking — including the kinds of social media messages they plan to send out.

Under the measure, the use of temp labor for strikebreaking purposes would also be permitted, and new rules would disrupt unions’ ability to channel member dues into political campaigning (i.e. toward the Labour Party).

So glaring is the hypocrisy behind much of the bill that it barely seems worth recounting. For instance, while purportedly intimidating behavior by strikers is criminalized, there will almost certainly be no provisions to prevent harassment of strikers by management and the police. Similarly, equivalent turnout thresholds, if applied to a general election, would invalidate the position of many MPs. For example, the Tories’ own candidate for London mayor, Zac Goldsmith, was recently nominated by his party members on a turnout well below that spelled out in the Trade Union Bill.

It also seems almost pointless to identify the holes in the measure’s reasoning. The Regulatory Policy Committee — a watchdog tasked with evaluating the costs and savings of new legislation — has roundly judged the proposals as “not fit for purpose.”

Indeed, looking at the pitifully low strike levels in the UK over recent years, such legislation has a slightly passé feel to it — most of the damage has already been done. Collapsing employment in union-dense core industrial sectors and wide-ranging anti-union legislation under Thatcher (as well as tight new restrictions on striking and picketing that made unions financially responsible for violations of these rules) have already critically weakened working-class power in Britain.

A Shameless Power Grab

The accusations of hypocrisy, and the critique of the bill’s main justifications, are the principal arguments being mobilized against the bill. But they are inherently limited. If the liberal discourse of rights, fairness, and evidence-based policy had any real sway here, the legislation would already be sunk. It’s more accurate to see the legislation as a shameless power grab on the part of the ruling class.

Consider the following recent vignette from the campaign against the bill. On October 3, Len McCluskey — leader of the huge Unite union and frequently demonized as Britain’s “hard left union baron” in chief — offered to drop his union’s opposition to the new turnout thresholds if the government allowed electronic ballots to be used in strike votes. Currently, unions have to use postal ballots for strike action, an antiquated method that militates against voter participation.

Yet, this extremely (indeed, unduly) generous offer was turned down. Why? Because the bill is not about preventing strikes that have “weak mandates” (a constant refrain from the Tories and the media) — it is about preventing work stoppages and, for those who are able to reach the threshold and go out on strike, making it painfully clear that the law is still not on their side.

The Trade Union Bill is part of a pattern of authoritarian policymaking that currently prevails across much of Europe, as governments struggle to come to grips with economic malaise. Along with continent-wide austerity measures, institutions for worker representation and collective bargaining have been hollowed out in numerous countries, either through new legal restrictions on union bargaining rights (including in Romania and Hungary) or the fragmentation of nationally organized bargaining systems (including in Belgium, Slovenia, Ireland, and the UK).

In an era of crisis, where so much rests on nebulous things like “the markets” or “business confidence,” states don’t appear to have many options other than hammering their own workforces in the hope of persuading capitalists to start investing again.

Hence the rash of coercive “workfare” policies across the continent, which appear to have little value as a means of improving skills or prospects, but have  significant value as a means of making workers even more frightened of unemployment (what economist Michal Kalecki called the “disciplinary power of the sack”). Workfare policies go hand in hand with the widespread evisceration of collective-bargaining institutions and European states’ increasing unilateralism in setting terms for their working populations.

For all its demonstrable inconsistencies and hypocrisies, the Trade Union Bill would be a bluntly effective tool to further pummel the organized working class, and business lobbies and “modernizing” politicians in other countries will be watching events in Britain with interest. The crucial question now is: just how far can state go in interfering with union activity, policing social media platforms, and keeping tabs on ordinary union members before it overstretches itself?

We already have egregious examples of surveillance on trade unionists, most notably the decades-long blacklisting of UK construction workers, apparently with state collusion, which is at last beginning to blow up in the faces of its perpetrators. Recent years have also seen employers disrupt industrial actions using legal challenges based on apparent technicalities, as in the Unite-British Airways dispute of 2010.

But passage of the Trade Union Bill would make British workers guinea pigs for new, entirely above-the-board methods of police surveillance. And by creating complex new balloting requirements, the legislation would make it far easier for management to paralyze industrial disputes with spurious legal objections.

Resisting the Bill

Do opponents have a chance of blocking the bill? Probably not. However flimsy it appears under scrutiny, the legislation’s main ideological justification — that militant leaders are bullying an inherently moderate membership — has been repeated so often and so loudly that it’s gained traction among large sections of the public.

In addition, the liberal left in many countries has long been vulnerable to the “chattering classes” stereotype — that they’re too absorbed in their own pet causes to notice the working class. Now, the Right is trying to lump trade unionism into this category as well.

These days, the Tories like to style themselves “the party of working people,” claiming it is workers who are the real victims of strikes. Tory Minister Nick Boles says the Trade Union Bill is about ensuring that the right to strike is “balanced against the freedom of other working people to go about their lives without undue disruption.”

Shriller right-wing voices, such as the columnist Leo McKinstry, are more brazen in their attempts to drive a wedge between trade unionists and other workers: “Once trade unions were the authentic voice of the British working class. Now they are noisy pressure groups for a narrow part of the national workforce… Something has to be done to emasculate these evangelists for failure and conflict.” The Tories are even considering setting up their own trade unions for “moderate” workers to join.

All this underscores that while it’s necessary to expose the rhetoric and false assumptions of the Trade Union Bill, changing the minds of the people pushing it is a fool’s errand. Unions should instead be preparing the ground for resistance after the bill is passed — resistance that is harder to delegitimize.

The absurdities implied in the bill — surveillance, overweening bureaucracy, potential legal wrangling over what constitutes an “important public service” — have to be dragged out and made unworkable in practice. In short, this unjust legislation must be defied.

McCluskey himself has said that “if this law pushes our membership outside of the law, we in Unite won’t abandon our members. If that pushes us outside of the law then it will be the prime minister’s responsibility for the outcomes of that.” With the legislation’s approval impending, we’ll see if he means it.

The prospects for this kind of fight are perhaps more hopeful now than they were a few months ago. Local governments in Scotland are saying they will refuse to implement sizable sections of the bill. Even more auspicious is Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour Party leader.

For now at least, Labour is led by a genuine socialist with an authentic record of radical activism and boasts a shadow cabinet that won’t shy away from censuring anti-union legislation.

In his victory speech, Corbyn denounced the bill, calling it an attempt to “undermine even the International Labor Organisations conventions and shackle democratic unions and destroy another element of democracy within our society.” And newly appointed Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell — for many years a socialist outlier on New Labour-dominated backbenches — has joined picket lines in support of striking council workers in North London.

Far from the malaise and disillusionment following May’s general election result, the next few months suddenly look like they could be among the most important in many years for socialist politics and class conflict in Britain.