On 1 March the major provisions of the Trade Union Act, which was passed last May, specifically those relating to pickets and ballot thresholds, came into operation, further tightening the shackles on workers who want to organise to defend their rights.
On the question of pickets, the act requires the responsible union to appoint a picket “supervisor”, who has committed to memory the code of practice on picketing, has told the police his name and phone number, can produce on request an authorising letter from the union, etc. etc … In short, who must jump through as many hoops as it pleases the constabulary to demand before workers can exercise their basic right of assembly, supposedly a key plank of bourgeois democracy.
On the question of ballot thresholds: in all cases industrial action can now only (legally) go ahead if a minimum of 50 percent of the workforce has voted. In the case of those engaged in “important public services”, not only must a minimum of 50 percent of the electorate turn out to vote, but at least 40 percent of the electorate need to vote yes. So for example, if there is a turnout of only 50 percent, at least 80 percent of those voting would need to be in favour of industrial action. The definition of ‘important public services’ is very broad, including health, education, transport, fire, customs and nuclear. (This so-called ‘double threshold’ does not apply to Wales, which has opted out of that measure.)
The act, like every other union-bashing law accumulating on the statute book, arrogates to the state the right to interfere in how unions organise their internal democracy – a matter that by rights should concern their members alone. Any union worth its salt would denounce this insolent trespass upon the rights of its members and where necessary rectify matters by mobilising them to break such unjust laws.
In March 2015, when the plan to establish ballot thresholds was under public discussion, Unite’s Len McCluskey appeared to share this view, warning that his union might call illegal strikes if the Tories enforced a higher threshold on ballots. In a speech to union lawyers, he declared: “When the law is misguided, when it oppresses the people and removes their freedoms, can we respect it? I am not really posing the question. I’m giving you the answer. It ain’t going to happen.” ([link href=”https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/mar/20/len-mccluskey-issues-warning-over-higher-threshold-on-strike-ballots”]Len McCluskey issues warning over higher threshold on strike ballots[/link] by Nicholas Watt, Guardian, 20 March 2015)
However, by October 2015, McCluskey was singing a different tune. Breaking ranks with even the half-hearted grumbling of the Corbynistas over the issue, he wrote a letter to the then Tory prime minister, David Cameron, offering to go along with the double-threshold penalty if in exchange the balloting rules were modernised, taking advantage of new technology.
He wrote: “It is my understanding that the Electoral Reform Society, which acts as independent scrutineer to most industrial action ballots today, believes there is no difficulty in guaranteeing workplace balloting procedures which are secret and are secure against any possibility of fraud or intimidation. Were you to be able to accept this modern and democratic proposal to update balloting procedures then Unite, for its part, would be comfortable about accepting the thresholds … proposed in the trade union bill.” ([link href=”https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/oct/03/len-mcluskey-unite-deal-david-cameron-trade-union-bill”]Unite chief offers union bill deal in return for online strike ballots[/link] by Toby Helm, Guardian, 4 October 2015)
By these lights, the problem is not that the capitalist state meddles in what is properly the business of the unions and their members; the problem is rather that the state’s meddling is not conducted in a sufficiently modern fashion!
What was presumably intended as a cunning tactical move was neatly sidestepped when the government shot his fox, itself commissioning a report to parliament on the delivery of secure methods of electronic balloting, due by December this year.
With recent TUC figures suggesting that between the years 2008-15, Britain ranked only 103 out of 112 in real-terms pay growth, with the value of wages sinking more sharply over that period than in any other OECD member besides Greece, it has never been more urgent for British workers to take control of their unions (or create new ones) and turn them into organs of class struggle. Len McCluskey was right the first time.