By Matthew Hull. Matthew is Chair of the Green Party Trade Union Group. This article was originally published on Bright Green, an independent outlet for radical, democratic green movements.
Another Tory parliament, another anti-union law? Last Sunday’s issue of the Telegraph carried briefings from Government ministers threatening to impose ever tighter restrictions on trade unions in some of the UK’s biggest and most strategically significant industries.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi hinted at undermining the position of educators’ unions, by allowing non-union associations to represent teachers in disciplinary and grievance procedures. Grant Shapps, Transport Secretary, dusted off a 2019 Conservative manifesto pledge to introduce so-called ‘minimum service requirements’ across public transport: requiring a certain number of workers to continue staffing services during strike action, and therefore requiring workers to scab on each other or make their action unlawful.
These proposals have been floated before and come straight from the pages of the Tory anti-union playbook. Not only that, but they are of a piece with the tsunami of repressive legislation that Boris Johnson’s government has sent crashing against the UK public.
The Policing Act and coming Public Order Bill, the Elections Bill, the Nationality & Borders Bill and more. Each is designed in its own way to make effective lawful democratic resistance to the ruling Conservative Party more difficult and, in cases, impracticable for many people. Shrinking the space available to organisers and community activists in particular, these pieces of legislation constitute a centralisation of increased power in the hands of the Government at the expense of all of us.
Restricting the activity of trade unions and rank-and-file members fits this pattern. The Tory design is to keep unions down by limiting the scope of their actions within the law: making lawful strike action as ineffective as possible, while threatening noncompliant unions with suppression and sequestration if they fail to police their own members. It is the sick genius of the modern British anti-strike law that it recruits union bureaucracies to act as disciplinarians on the state’s behalf.
Beyond this general picture, the plans trailed in the Sunday Telegraph are specifically targeted at what the Government considers to be problematic areas of relative boldness.
Speaking to the paper, Shapps told railway workers’ unions to “wake up and smell the coffee.” While he did not say it, his comments were surely directed at the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT); they are in the late stages of a national ballot of workers involving 40,000 railways staff. An outpost of relatively high density and strike-readiness, in the strategically important transport sector, the RMT are a perfect example of the commendable militancy that the government wishes to supress.
Zahawi’s encroachment on the position of education unions comes after two years where the National Education Union (NEU) in particular has grown more vocal and gained more members. The NEU’s creative invocation of health and safety protections in Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act to force a U-turn in Government policy during Covid lockdowns has neither been forgotten, nor forgiven by the minister. The broader weakening of democratic accountability in education, driven by academisation and free schools, would be consummated by depriving unions of a key institution role in defending members’ interests.
These are changes the Government has been dying to make. Incubated for years in the imaginations of the Right, they could have made an appearance at seemingly any time. So why now?
As mentioned, the RMT are approaching the end of a landmark ballot of railway workers that could see tens of thousands walk out. This is reason enough for a scare-story in the Government’s favourite receptacle for propaganda and puff pieces. In an exceedingly busy parliament, with the Government racing to push through the rest of its repressive agenda, it is not clear that the Conservative Party will prioritise giving these plans a high-profile hearing.
Given the broader economic context, however, it is equally if not more plausible that the Government is laying the groundwork for this assault on trade union rights to take place, albeit further down the line.
As the crisis in standards of living grows and grows, dissent and anger are only likely to grow. The Conservative government has shown that it has neither the ideas nor the commitment to provide a resolution to this crisis that would support working people and challenge corporate power. Selling “more work” as the way out of it, at a time when work is paying less and less by the week, is going to fool no-one. The Government’s best bet for maintaining their grip on power whatever the weather, is to increase their ability to repress organised dissent and prevent a coherent popular opposition from forming.
This is what makes keeping unions down, in a cost-of-living crisis, a political priority for the current Government.
In 2022, even in their comparatively diminished state, trade unions are positioned to do something that other institutions in British politics cannot. Unions have the ability to take ambitions, ideas, impulses, and feelings among the mass of working people and translate them into demands for progressive change. The student movement – another potential locus for the creation, popularisation and resourcing of such demands – is in a weakened state and without a genuinely engaged mass membership. The print and digital media are largely owned (and their agendas determined) by a right-wing billionaire clique, ably assisted by a narrow, isolated and upper-class journalists’ set. Put simply, if mass dissent is going to take political form at all, it is difficult to see how it will not come from or at least through the labour movement.
There is ample historic precedent for trade unions playing this social role, as a vanguard of social change. Waves of popular industrial action throughout the 19th and 20th centuries have resulted in sea-changes in Britain’s social contract. To put it another way: the worst outcome for the Conservatives isn’t just a successful RMT action on the railways, but an RMT action that gains broad sympathy and popularity across the UK. Not only are Tories aware of this, but it is the stuff of their most feverish nightmares. It fuels an obsession with imposing ever more restrictive anti-union laws, even though Britain already has the most oppressive in Western Europe.
This is how the Tories’ response to the cost-of-living crisis is shaping up to be a security state response, without a welfare-based response (and much less a democratic worker-led response). The game is insulating themselves and their base from the climbing costs of crisis, while suppressing the effects of working people’s resistance.
This is an incredibly dangerous road. The Conservatives’ agenda is already building the state’s capacity to repress resistance by the working class, and especially LGBT communities and people of colour.
The strains on people’s ability to live are only likely to grow. Supply shocks in food and commodities, for example, amplified by an unstable financialised trading system; climate-induced instability and price fluctuations; the increasingly inability of the poorest to secure publicly accessible health services in good time if at all: each successive impact will prompt the state to react as it is accustomed to do, by containing the impacts and protecting the interests of owners and not workers.
In this context, attacks on trade unions’ ability to organise and strike freely should be interpreted as part of the broader attack on the people’s ability to struggle for and win justice for themselves and the planet. Even if the government is trailing these proposals primarily to test the waters, we need to be firm in our resistance.
The RMT has already committed in policy to flout any so-called ‘minimum service requirements’ should they be implemented, and to fight against their implementation tooth-and-nail; we must support them in this all the way. Unite’s General Secretary, Sharon Graham, has declared that “if the government forces our legitimate activities”, they “shouldn’t expect [Unite] to play by the rules.” Commitments like this should be commended, and Graham should be encouraged to make firm preparations to fight this fight. Support should be offered to unions that refuse meekly to accept these changes.
One of the great psychological victories of Thatcherism is that even among progressives, some have been primed to see union rights and workplace struggles as separate from wider democratic rights and struggles. History’s lesson that trade union rights and freedoms are the canary in the coalmine for civil liberties is a lesson that constantly needs revising. Too many people hope, without justification, that they can support and protect democratic rights in society without prioritising the sometimes-messy business of upholding the right to strike.
The supposed division between freedoms to organise and exercise democratic power in the workplace and outside of it, has always been artificial. Maintaining this artifice in a period when elites are threatening a total regression in rights and freedoms, however, could be nothing less than suicidal. The more and more our working lives resemble dictatorships, the more difficult and painful all democratic resistance will become.
The learned habit of tempering or moderating support for union actions must be set aside. Supporting such rights in principle, while avowedly criticising unions and industrial actions that apply them in practice, will be shown to be insufficient. Greens, progressives, socialists, social democrats, liberals too: it’s time to stand up and defend workers’ rights to organise. You might be next.