A very serious attempt is being made by bosses and their legal jackals to extend the anti-union laws by stealth.
This is a threat to every trade union and, if successful, will make it virtually impossible to organise legal strikes.
Although it has received little publicity, legal threats related to allegedly improper implementation of strike ballot procedures have derailed a number of important strikes.
On 22 October, some 14,000 London bus workers in the Unite union were due to strike.
Union leaders called off the action because of a legal injunction, secured by one company during an earlier strike, which other companies then threatened to use.
One of the reasons the company won the injunction was because a judge found that the union had not detailed with sufficient precision the occupational grades of those taking action.
The same manoeuvre was used last year to get an injunction against the national post strike.
The anti-union laws were brought in by the Tories under Margaret Thatcher and maintained in all their essentials by the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
They were designed to hamper unions’ ability to resist, and to give union leaders a way to persuade their members not to strike. The state weighed in to robustly defend the employers.
All these laws should go, but instead of them being repealed, they are now being interpreted ever more harshly.
The laws detail a thicket of obstacles that the unions have to navigate to avoid being sued during a strike.
One clause of the law says that unions have to give the employers a list of workers who are going on strike and their workplaces. Unions must also sort these into their occupational categories.
Such requirements are a magnet for employers who want to use technicalities to halt strikes.
To give a flavour of how strikes can be halted, look at last year’s post strike. The injunction relies on evidence from Gillian Alford, the industrial relations director of Royal Mail.
She argues that the CWU union has broken the law because of various inconsistencies.
For example she says the South East No 5 branch lodged contradictory figures for the number of workers on OPG and PHG grades – with 3,479 specified in one place and the Royal Mail Group calculating 3,434 in another.
On the basis of a series of such “irregularities”, Royal Mail won an injunction to halt plans for strikes by around 150,000 union members last October.
This was never tested in court in the end because a deal was then agreed between the CWU union and the employers to end the dispute.
The threat of legal action (and a fine of up to £250,000), plus the prospect that the entire dispute could be declared to have broken the law must have weighed heavily on the negotiators’ minds.
Unless the anti-union laws are challenged, no union could survive the level of detailed scrutiny now being imposed on ballots.
For example, how could the Unison union ensure that in a strike by 750,000 local government members with a vast array of different grades and job titles that all the categories were precisely correct?
This is not just a matter for those unions facing such injunctions. It is a matter for the entire union movement.
The use of the anti-union laws flies in the face of the democratic decisions of thousands of workers.
Some union leaders will say we should not talk about such matters because it will encourage more employers to go to court. But that is happening already with increasing regularity.
It’s time to fight, not slink away and hope nobody notices.
The unions should challenge these laws in court – and call mass protests outside when they do so.
But in the end the only way to win is for a union to say that it is not going to back down in the face of injunctions and threats, and that it will strike regardless. And then every other union, and the TUC must support them.
The right to withdraw labour – to strike – is the most fundamental power that workers have. We must fight urgently to defend that right.
For more on the London bus dispute, go to » Bus workers set to march on City Hall