The biggest attack on trade union rights for almost thirty years is underway in the United Kingdom, with the Conservative government hoping to push through a series of debilitating reforms that would seriously hinder workers’ capacity for organised action. The trade union bill, which was unveiled in summer, overcame its first obstacle when it was provisionally backed with a 33 vote majority by MPs in September. In a complicated process, the reform bill will be scrutinised by various committees, by the House of Lords and again by the House of Commons, before the final vote takes place early next year.
The reforms, which include plans to criminalise picketing and permit employers to hire strike-breaking agency staff, come as little surprise to those familiar with the ruling Conservative Party, whose recent record includes attempts to scrap the 1998 Human Rights Bill and pushing through a motion sanctioning the intensification of bombing in the Middle East. The rights of anyone other than the political and financial elite have always been treated with particular contempt by the party and its members, and the Conservatives have traditionally drawn support from the banking industry and big business whose interests they represent. The reforms have been compared to those implemented in the Trade Union Act of 1984 by the Conservative party’s Norman Tebbit. That particular attack was the final nail in the coffin for renowned miner’s strike of the era, revoking as it did the strikers’ entitlement to state benefits. Faced with starvation or defeat, the National Union of Mineworkers was eventually forced to call an end to the strike after months of stalemate.The current set of proposals attack the ability of unions to defend workers’ rights on a variety of levels, tying up the process of organised action in bundles of bureaucratic tape. A key aspect of the proposed changes is that unions will be required to have at least a 50% voter turnout in a ballot to start collective action. They will additionally need to secure the approval of 40% of those eligible to vote (essentially all union members) in order to proceed with the action. In layman‘s terms, for a strike to proceed legally it would require an 80% vote in favour of action from those who participate, if 50% participate. To put this into context: The Public and Commercial Services Union, which is one of the largest unions in the country and represents almost 250,000 civil servants and others, has never achieved a 50% turnout on a national ballot. Those in favour of the bill, of course, hide their true motives (the total disempowerment of the working class) by claiming that they merely want to see a more complete democratic process within the unions. With the proposed threshold changes, they argue, strikes can only take place when there is a larger majority than is currently the case, and thus the unions will have a stronger mandate for ‘disrupting the lives of everyday working people’ (the supposed concern of the bill’s author, Business Secretary Sajid Javid).
However, the Prime Minister David Cameron has rejected a proposal to introduce electronic voting for strike action, claiming that it could potentially be subject to fraudulent activities. This despite the fact that exactly the same process has been used to elect a conservative candidate for the 2016 London mayoral election. Presumably the prospect of electoral fraud is only to be taken seriously in instances of working class resistance. This leaves many workplaces with only the postal ballot for voting on strike action – a method renowned for its low rates of participation. The conservative government has no interest in democratising the unions, only making the process more complicated and less accessible. They want fewer votes, not more, and their refusal to even consider electronic voting – never mind voice a coherent and logical objection to it – is a testament to this.
The idea of the creation of a new criminal offence – “intimidation on the picket line” – has been mooted, as the state strives to remove even the voices of the working people from class struggle. The state is demanding greater regulation of picket lines by unions, so as to more easily condemn and punish them in instances of worker backlash. The bill also proposes the repealing of existing legislation that limits the hiring of agency staff to replace participating workers, reducing the potency of industrial action. There even exists a proposal for a requirement that the unions tell police, in advance, of what they intend to publish on social media. Opposition to the bill has been muted, accompanied by a general underreporting from the mainstream media of one of the most seismic attacks on worker agency in living memory. As mainstream unions scramble to make compromises with the state, and the opposition Labour party seems more concerned about what the reforms could mean for their income, there is one thing that is obvious. The message is clear: the state wants to secure more control. To control the parameters of class war, to control the methods of resistance, to control the very voices of dissent themselves.