Published 13th November 2019.
The High Court injunction granted to Royal Mail to prevent postal workers from striking, despite their overwhelming vote to do so, highlights the profoundly undemocratic nature of Britain’s anti-trade union laws, and the urgent need for the whole labour movement to renew our fight for their abolition – including by demanding that the Labour Party commits to fully repealing all existing anti-union laws when in government.
Part of Royal Mail’s claim to the High Court was that the CWU’s extensive, and highly effective, social media campaign to encourage members to vote yes in its ballot for industrial action breached laws which requires that members be able to vote in ballots without “interference” from the union. The judge claimed that the CWU’s campaign amounted to a “de facto workplace ballot” – but why should workplace ballots be illegal? Workers voting, in the workplace, to withdraw their labour, should be a legally enshrined democratic right.
Workplace ballots for strikes have been illegal since the early 90s, and the law has required that ballots take place without “interference” from the union since the 1984 Trade Union Act.
The 1984 Act was one of a succession of anti-union laws imposed by the Thatcher and Major governments in the wake of capital’s major victories over organised labour in the 1980s, most prominently in the 1984/5 miners’ strike, which sought to criminalise effective workplace organisation and industrial action, and weight the scales of power dramatically towards employers.
Even when unions clear the arbitrary thresholds demanded by the 2016 Trade Union Act, as the CWU comfortably did in its recent ballot, the pre-existing legislation hands bosses an invaluable weapon to challenge the validity of any ballot. The law requires that unions submit balloting information to employers in advance of commencing any ballot, giving bosses time to scrutinise it for any minor inaccuracies or technicalities with which they can run to the judges.
In 2010, Network Rail secured an injunction from the High Court to prevent a strike of signallers in the RMT, which found some inaccuracies in RMT’s balloting data. The strike was called in response to a proposal to cut 1,500 jobs – a measure Network Rail bosses were, of course, able to take unilaterally, without having to ballot anyone.
The High Court has also granted injunctions to Docklands Light Railway bosses (against the RMT in 2011); British Airways bosses (against Unite in 2010); and London and Birmingham Railway and Govia Thameslink Railway bosses (against Aslef in 2011 and 2016). The reasons for these included, in the case of the 2011 injunction against Aslef, that the union had balloted two people, from a total of 605, who were not entitled to vote. The 2010 injunction granted to British Airways rested on Unite’s failure to declare the number of spoilt ballots in its announcement of the ballot result to members, even though these had no bearing on the result.
The Royal Mail injunction must be met with a storm of protest across the labour movement, and any members of the CWU who choose to take unofficial action must be supported by their own union and the movement as a whole.
The power that existing laws give employers to obstruct industrial action should settle the debate ongoing within the labour movement about what attitude a future Labour government should take to the laws. Some have argued that a “public bonfire of the Thatcherite anti-union laws” is not required, and that Labour could supersede them by passing new, positive legislation. Despite overwhelming votes at three consecutive Labour Party conferences for policies demanding the repeal of all anti-union laws, Labour’s leaders rarely publicly commit to more than the repeal of the most recent, the 2016 Trade Union Act. The reality is that, even if the 2016 Act were repealed, and even if a Labour government passed positive legislation giving unions more right, unless the laws passed between 1980 and 1990 were also repealed, the legislation that gives bosses the ability to seek High Court injunctions against strikes would remain in effect.
The idea that the only prior mechanism necessary to sanction a strike should be a majority vote of the workers involved in a workplace meeting only appears radical because we toil under the weight of generations of defeat – prior to which, these more direct and immediate forms of workplace democracy were the norm.
The CWU, with its practise of large “gate meetings” at sorting offices and depots and its members’ retention of a culture of wildcat and unofficial action, which the union admirably refuses to disavow, has fared perhaps the best of all TUC-affiliated unions in retaining some of the culture that the Tories sought to smash and then shackle and repress with laws designed to definitively prevent its reemergence. Its present conflict with Royal Mail on this terrain, therefore, takes on a political significance well beyond the bounds of a simple trade dispute between an employer and a particular union. As fellow trade unionists, we would do Royal Mail workers a serious disservice if we allowed any policy other than the abolition of all anti-union laws to become dominant in either the industrial or political wings of the labour movement.
Committing to the full abolition of all anti-union laws, and their replacement with a positive bill of rights legislating for a full right to strike, is not only an important and symbolic statement of political intent, it is an absolutely essential plank of the policy platform of any government which seeks, in John McDonnell’s words, to achieve “an irreversible shift in wealth and power in favour of working people”. Without such a policy, the balance of power in workplaces will remain tilted massively in favour of employers, with workers and our unions forced to fight with at least one hand tied behind our backs.