Sunday 31 July 2022

The Tory Attack on the Right to Strike

One thing that has surprised me about the Tory leadership contest is how neither candidate have got into a bidding war over who could be tougher on industrial action and trade unions. When asked, Liz Truss and Rish! Sunak are mostly content to say they'd carry out the manifesto promise made in 2019. I.e. That for essential public infrastructure, the impacts of strikes would be mitigated by a mandatory skeleton service. Keen to carve out a future for himself under Truss, the Sunak-backing Grant Shapps - the country's occasional transport secretary - has outlined plans of his own to keep the workers down.

Taking to the pages of the Telegraph last Tuesday, Shapps said the Tories must "complete Margaret Thatcher's unfinished business." Framed by a litany of lies that come as freely to Tory ministers these days as brown envelopes from Russian oligarchs, Shapps's proposal is to ban strikes by different unions in the same workplace within a set period. For instance, if the RMT-organised railway staff are striking Thursday, ASLEF train drivers would not be allowed to walk off the job on Friday. Pickets for "critical national infrastructure" would be limited to six people, and Shapps would send the coppers down to striking workers to make sure they don't use "intimidatory language". The ballot paper would, by law, have the industrial action proposed written on it, and he implies the six month-long time period covered by the vote could be shortened. He also suggests 60 day cooling off periods after each strike. Shapps also wants to raise the notice period from two to four weeks, and the turnout threshold from 40% to 50%. In other words, the most restrictive labour laws ever seen in a Western liberal democracy are going to get even more repressive.

You can understand why the Tories are twitchy about the RMT and the sudden prominence of Mick Lynch. His plain-speaking media performances, and that of Eddie Dempsey have successfully challenged the dominant framings the Tory and Tory-adjacent broadcasters and newspapers have foisted on the dispute. Helping matters along is certainly the cost of living crisis and inflation. Masses of people tend to break with dominant and official narratives when what is propagated contradicts their lived experiences. Even the most right wing, anti-union, dyed-in-wool Tory supporter can't but notice the galloping fuel bills and the edging upwards of supermarket prices, and acknowledge that what the train companies are offering, at the government's behest, is a pay cut. It's on occasions like these when millions of people start questioning the old and start thinking anew - something Mick has recognised and used his platform to encourage. Even more worrying for the Tories, telecoms workers have come out, and posties, teachers, HE workers, nurses, doctors are about to or have threatened ballots of their own. And all this comes after a couple of years of relatively low-level but successful disputes by the new wave of independent unions, particularly in the gig economy, and key wins by the GMB and Unite. Both unions fought and won their pay claim against British Airways by threatening industrial action, and now pilots are threatening strikes after BA cut their salaries by a fifth during the acute moment of the pandemic and have not restored them. Furthermore, Unite won against Coventry City Council in the long running and bitter bin workers' dispute. Nothing breeds success like success, and all these taken together are creating the most favourable period for industrial action since the 1980s. It feels like something is in the air, because there is.

Shapps's measures are informed by this looming threat. But, given the context, is only likely to antagonise rather than browbeat the labour movement into submission. In the 1980s, Thatcher didn't finish the unions off for the simple reason that she understood hers was only a temporary victory. Had she followed up the miners' strike immediately with more repressive legislation, it would have given the labour movement a new point of unity and a fresh cause to rally against - one that would have set aside the divisions of the mid 80s. Instead she let things drift, and when the 1988 Employment Act appeared in the Commons it was mainly concerned with the internal mechanics of trade unions. The real curbs on strike action had come before Thatcher provoked her dispute with the NUM. The lesson she took was patience. She waited until the heat from 1984-5 died down, for the unions to wallow in the miasma of defeat, and then came for their privileges and added further conditions on collective action when they were weakened and demoralised. Where Thatcher came unstuck was forgetting the strategies she applied to smashing the labour movement. Having divided her opponents with some skill, her Poll Tax was a simultaneous attack on everyone. Faced with overwhelming opposition and a non-payment campaign millions strong, the game was up. Coming after her John Major was careful not to provoke such universal active opposition, and when New Labour took office Tony Blair likewise only took on comparatively small sections of the labour movement, backed by the repressive trade union legislation he did little to nothing to rectify.

What Shapps doesn't get is class relations can't be managed by coercion alone. If he pursues his schemes, presumably under Truss, he could end up not just provoking the more active unions but the entirety of the TUC. This is because he's attacking workers' bargaining positions and, also, the mediating role played by trade union officialdom between bosses and employees. Even quiescent unions like USDAW cannot tolerate so direct an attack. Shapps then is poised to make the mistake Thatcher never made in industrial relations: he's trying to assault the labour movement as a whole. And he does so in a period of labour ascendency with inflation driving workers into the unions. It's a moment the Tories could end up ruing if they persist. They could get their own way, but the antagonist they're provoking, their own internal divisions and incompetence, counts against their chances. We are cursed to live in interesting times, but one in which the spark of hope for labour has lit up again.

Image Credit


Shai Masot said...

Of course, the REAL tragedy is that a Tory-lite "Labour" government led by Keef wouldn't reverse ANY of Shapps's measures.

Don't vote Labour. Kick the careerists where it hurts!

Jim Denham said...

Is Shai Masot actually a Tory or just a useful idiot?

Anonymous said...

Exactly what I was just thinking.

Old Trot said...

Jim, seriously, your content-less drivel comment simply smears Shai Masot, but ignores his point completely . Did Starmer abandon all his solemn Corbyn era policy 'Ten Pledges' cynically signed off as his selling point to win the Labour Leadership contest as soon as he was elected ? Yes he did. Is there anything stated by Starmer or his Shadow Cabinet since to suggest that Starmer's Labour will not continue with a new round of austerity - 'to rebalance the public finances ' ? Is there anything to suggest Starmer's Labour isn't as committed as the Tories to continue to privatise the NHS ? Is there any suggestion that Starmer's Labour will dismantle the straightjacket of anti trades union legislation built up since Thatcher ? No there isn't , Jim. Have Starmer and his cronies being pursuing a constant purge of Left members since he became Leader ? Yes they have , Jim, So your idiotic slur against someone simply pointing out the ongoing massive betrayal of the working class that the reborn Blairite NuLabour Party represents , yet again demonstrates what a simpleton you are politically. Is your now utterly degenerated AWL the last remining supposedly 'Left' apologist for Starmer and the Labour Right ? It is YOU who are the 'useful idiot' Denham. Own it - it fits you to a T.

PurplePete said...

YouGov Latest Westminster voting intention (27-28 July)

Con: 34% (+2 from 21-22 July)
Lab: 35% (-4)
Lib Dem: 13% (+1)
Green: 7% (-1)
Reform UK: 3% (-1)
SNP: 5% (+1)

Keef is storming it!