Wednesday 5 February 2014

Strike Ballots and Unintended Consequences

Johnson's at it again. Rather than sit down and have meaningful dialogue with workers' representatives on the London Underground, he's been carping about a "lack of mandate" because the RMT's successful strike ballot came off the back of a 40% turnout. Instead, Johnson believes every ballot for industrial action should meet a 50% threshold to qualify as lawful. Ever keen to mimic the buffoon and curry favour with the wilting Tory grassroots, Dave has intimated that he'd like to see the Underground classed as an essential service, an imposition of a minimum service agreement during stoppages and, of course, a turnout threshold. For both men, it's about an instinctive hatred of a group of working people who have a record of winning disputes.

In Johnson's case, there's a bit more to it. He talks about not negotiating with the RMT "as long as it holds a gun to Londoners' heads", but has not met with the union for nigh-on five years. This is part distaste for the hoi polloi, and part calculation so he can trot out this transparent line when occasion demands. The second thing is that Bob Crow condenses in one man absolutely everything Tories like Johnson hate about working class trade unionists. He's militant, refuses to "know his place", is successful and worst of all, refuses to be taken in by the Boris Johnson Show. If Johnson can take him and the RMT out, he can lay credible claim to Thatcher's union-busting legacy, deepen his base in the party and extend his appeal among those backward types who see the pay and conditions of Underground workers as something to vilify, not to attempt to win for themselves.

Like the rest, Johnson is fully immersed in the stunted outlook and smug decadence gripping his party. Therefore, I'm not in the least bit surprised he (and Dave) haven't properly thought through the unintended consequences of their move to impose ballot thresholds.

The first is well-trailed. As the New Statesman points out, Johnson wouldn't have been elected if the threshold was applied to mayoral elections. The same can be said for European and local authority elections, parliamentary by-elections and, in some cases, a few constituencies on general election day. Johnson himself was elected on a 38% turnout. The RMT's ballot managed 40% which, as it happens, is quite high for an industrial dispute. The mayor has been asked about this comparison frequently, and a typical routine of muttering and mumbling comes by way of reply. Some might say a strike ballot and election are two different things, but Johnson knows the legitimacy principle is the same for both. And so do the public. He is canny enough to be aware that every time he gibbers something about the threshold, he is dumping over his own standing as an elected politician. Yet, simultaneously, he ignores the signals his antennae are picking up as if it won't affect him. He doesn't care that prodding a socket with copper wiring would give politics a nasty shock. The oaf is ultimately undermining his and his party's medium and long-range interests all for narrow egotism and a deluded sense of invulnerability. Decadent is one word for it. Another, much shorter d-word also comes to mind.

The second is less considered, but could be of equal - if not more - significance. Johnson and Dave favour the threshold because a) it will be more difficult to pull off official disputes, b) demoralise union activists as thresholds are repeatedly missed, and c) cost unions more time and resource to meet the new criteria. Quite apart from restrictive new rules running the risk of midwifing wildcat strikes or, more likely, individual acts of workplace damage born of frustration, it's yet another example of complacent suppositions. Remember, the relationship we as labour movement people have with unions is atypical. We go to meetings for one, and we earnestly talk about union issues with real-life people in real-life places. For most trade union members, the relationship they have is the missive through the door and the monthly deduction of subs. A good chunk of workers in organised workplaces won't even know who their local rep is. Consider what might happen if the law changes. A dispute arises, a union goes for a ballot and has to hit the thresholds. It has diverted more resources into a get out the vote operation. That could mean more workplace meetings, more literature through the post, more activists working on turnout and, who knows, a canvassing of members' homes. This is easier to do on a smaller scale, so it's likely disputes involving hundreds or thousands, not tens or hundreds of thousands would become the 'standard' official dispute. But more importantly, the turnout pressure could force members into a closer relationship with their union. A distant, abstract entity might become something more approximate, more immediately relevant, more direct. That's the last thing Johnson and Dave would want.

These things won't necessarily happen, but they could. The question is are Tories willing to run the risk? Given their sectional stupidity and dislocation from the collective interests of British capital itself, there's no evidence they think there even is one.


Phil said...

Is it feasible for a union to call an official dispute involving only a couple of hundred workers? If so, as you say, a very different - and 'old-style' - relationship between the union and its members might start to emerge.

I remember my first strike; it was called at a mass meeting (in the canteen), and the shop steward had his work cut out to rein in the "all out indefinitely" tendency on the floor - they weren't political hacks, either, just ordinary members who thought management needed to be taught a lesson. Postal ballots may be here to stay, but making stewards work harder to mobilise smaller groups of people might actually foster some of that fighting spirit. So, er, cheers, Johnson*.

*Meme OTD: don't call him Boris, he's not your mate.

Anonymous said...

This is a fascistic measure.

Who compensates the union when they send voting forms out to members, and some members then take the time to vote, only to be told after the process has finished that the vote is invalid?

The right wing have always got away with rank hypocrisy, so the Tories lecturing about mandates at a time when they have none yet are delivering the most radical changes in generations will not even register. Only the left are held to account, the right can do what the fuck they like and they know it.

Alex Dawson said...

In response the comment above, yes it is feasible. The union can choose which workers are to be balloted, and on what sites. The RMT are known for mounting "tactical" disputes across certain grades.

Interesting to note here that the more advanced/degenerate capitalist employers have set up shell companies to employ different people in different sites to make it almost impossible to call a single ballot across multiple sites. It means lots of little ballots have to take place instead of one big one.

My experience of dealing with this is actually that turnout increases as the union centrally goes to a rep in every workplace to ensure details are correct and these reps then encourage participation is arguable that decentralising bargaining, like what is now going on in education, forces workers to rediscover basic grass roots trade unionism and can have the opposite effect, in some areas, of dampening industrial battles.

However, it does have a negative effect if the unions don't organise on the ground. That takes resources and hard graft.