Saturday 8 August 2015

Tory Decadence and the Trade Unions

This blog has had occasion to comment on the decadence and stupidity of our Tory party friends. This isn't an ad hom attack, it's a properly social scientific concept - honest. Its chief manifestation is the pursuit of policies detrimental to the interests of British business as a whole - and sometimes harmful to its own base in the most regressive, backward, and socially useless sections of capital - but serve the immediate interests of the Tory party and/or the clique that presently run it. Sometimes, it doesn't even do that. It springs out of genuine spite.

A key exhibit in recent weeks have been the long-promised attacks on trade unions. The first of this two-pronged attack has been the removal of check off: the automatic deduction of members' trade union dues from payroll by the civil services. For the Tories this is part of a drive to "modernise" the relationship between it and public sector unions, and save public money - all 350 quid of it. Obviously, for modernise read "make life difficult for unions". It will then be up to members to make their own direct debit arrangements.

The second, which has been widely trailed, are the plans to introduce balloting thresholds for disputes in so-called key public services. Should this find its way through the House - which is likely - unions will need an absolute majority of the workforce to vote for industrial action, not just a simple majority of those returning ballot papers. They are also looking at introducing time limits to ballots.

You can see what the Tories are trying to achieve. In the first instance, they think they're undermining the unions' capacity to collect monies and causing some members to drop off the rolls as they forget to/are indifferent to maintaining theirs subs. In the latter case, the Tories are hoping to make the bar for industrial action higher and draw the sting out of disputes by tying unions up in balloting and re-balloting.

From their point of view, the Tories are making a stupid mistake.

Speaking in recent days to trade unionists who've had to deal with check off, union branches have managed to sign up between 94% and 97% of existing members to direct debits. In one of those merry happenstances of unforeseen consequences, lay officials and activists have canvassed whole workplaces for the changeover, whether they're presently members or not. The result? Hundreds of new members recruited in civil service and other public sector workplaces in North Staffordshire. Furthermore, management no longer know where the membership are. Whereas they could check the strength of the union(s) in a workplace by a glance at payroll, they can't do that any more. In the field of public sector industrial relations, the desire to throw some red meat to their backward support has robbed managers of vital intelligence.

The changes to balloting rules are likely to have similar unanticipated outcomes. For a ballot to work, officials of all stripes and activists are going to - and will - have more face-to-face conversations and interaction with the membership. There is also a marginal chance where workplaces already possess a high union density, workers might dispense with the bureaucratic rigmarole and launch wildcat strikes and other forms of unofficial action.

In other words, the Tories have unlearned the lessons of the 1980s. Thatcher understood what it took to keep organised labour to heel: its solidarising relationships have to be disrupted. It's not just enough to shackle unions with restrictive legislation. In their petty-minded attacks on unions, the Tories are running the risk of inadvertently strengthening their enemy. Their inability to even contemplate these consequences underlines how counterproductive they've become as far as capital's class interests are concerned.

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