Britain’s laws are “the most restrictive on trade unions in the Western world”, as Tony Blair once boasted. Our country is in violation of its obligations as a signatory to various International Labour Organisation Conventions. Strikes can be overturned on the flimsiest of technicalities.
The right-wing cry that Labour is somehow the puppet of its trade union “masters” can be quickly exposed as the laughable fantasy it is by the fact that, despite being undeniably reliant on union funds, 13 years of Labour rule did virtually nothing to reverse Margaret Thatcher’s legal onslaught against the labour movement. Unions had more rights in 1906 – four decades before the first majority Labour government – than the day Gordon Brown packed his bags and left No 10.
Union power remains in tatters. When trade union membership peaked in 1979 – that is, just as Maggie marched triumphantly into Downing Street – there were 12.6 million trade unionists in Britain. Unions remain, by far, the biggest civil society organisations in the country, but their total membership has collapsed to just 7 million. Their last stronghold is the public sector: but the proportion of private sector workers with union cards in their pockets is just 15%. The number of workers downing tools remains at historic lows.
We can’t just blame Thatcher’s repressive anti-union laws remaining on the statute book. We once had an industrial economy based on secure, skilled jobs and cohesive communities based around mines, factories and docks. Today’s service economy has a far more high-and-fire workforce. It is far more difficult, to say the least, for unions to organise. In the late 19th century, trade unions had to think outside the box to recruit unskilled workers. The labour movement of 2011 is far from launching a similar project of its own.
With labour on its knees, you would think the Cameron government had better things to do than launch a 1980s-style crusade against the trade unions. Think again. When the Coalition talks about restoring British civil liberties, it certainly does not have working people in mind.
For months, Tory London Mayor Boris Johnson has been banging an anti-union drum. Stop strikes from taking place unless they are supported by a majority of those eligible to vote, rather than the greater part of those taking part, he demands.
Apply to this principle to Parliament and just 38 MPs would be able to take their seats. Don’t be disappointed if this fails to impress the plutocrats running the country, however. All the signs are that Her Majesty’s Government is planning another showdown with the battered rump of the organised working-class.
In what looked suspiciously like a planted question drafted by Cameron’s advisors in this week’s PMQs,senior Tory backbencher Richard Ottaway asked if his leader agreed “that any union ballot that leads to industrial action should have the majority support of those entitled to vote?” Yes, was the gist of Cameron’s response:
I know that a strong case is being made, not least by my colleague, the Mayor of London, for this sort of change. I am very happy to look at the arguments for it, because I want to make sure that we have a fair body of union law in this country. I think the laws put in place in the 1980s are working well. We do not currently have proposals to amend them, but I am happy to look at this argument, because I do not want to see a wave of irresponsible strikes, not least when they are not supported by a majority of people taking part.
As the Telegraph’s well-connected Political Correspondent recently put it: “The Coalition does not want to be seen to fire the first shot in a war with the unions. But that doesn’t mean that Cabinet ministers do not want to toughen union laws and make it harder to strike. Quite the contrary: several are mustard-keen to battle the brothers.”
Don’t just expect that just to include the Tories. Nick Clegg has praised Margaret Thatcher for her“immensely significant” victory over the unions; and Vince Cable has called for it to be made harder to strike in essential public services.
Though the unions are weak, the Government is driving through the biggest programme of cuts for nearly a century. They know that resistance to this agenda is inevitable, not least because they lack a democratic mandate. That is why they are firing warning shots: they will tighten the screws yet further if the unions dare to fight. In school playgrounds they call this a game of chicken.
I can see how their strategy might unfold. A confrontation with a trade union could be staged at a time of the Government’s choosing. Unlike Thatcher’s strident rhetoric, the Coalition will sound moderate and reasonable. A non-Government propaganda campaign could be engineered, with supposed ‘calls from all sides’ for the union laws to be tightened. Some of these demands could be for an extreme clampdown on the unions, and the Government’s actual policies would be not quite as far-reaching, allowing them to claim they have navigated a ‘middle course’.
This threat poses a huge challenge to the already severely weakened trade union movement. Most working-class people are not union members. The Government will seek to divide the far more unionised public sector from the private sector workforce. For my generation in particular, trade unions are practically an alien concept.
That’s why we need a clever response from the union leadership. They need to stand together, which they disastrously failed to do in the 1980s. They must avoid being portrayed as merely representing ‘sectional interests’ (while still sticking up for the members who elected them) by making it clear they are fighting for all working people against the Government’s cuts blitz. They must link up with a whole range of campaigns, community groups and protesters (as they have already started to do with students).
If the unions can put themselves at the heart of a protest movement against a Government with no democratic legitimacy for a programme of class war, then we have a chance of taking Cameron’s premiership down. But if the bruised and battered labour movement is successfully led into another Tory trap, I find it difficult to see how it will ever recover in my lifetime.