Socialist Worker

Tories announce more attacks on trade unions

by Hamza Sharif
Issue No. 2466

King's College health workers in London strike last year as part of the NHS walkouts  (Pic: Guy Smallman)


The Tories’ latest assault on trade unions will make it harder for workers to organise.

They announced plans on Thursday of last week to scrap “check-off” for 3.8 million public sector workers. 

This means workers’ union subscriptions will no longer be automatically deducted from their wages. 

John McLoughlin, Unison union branch secretary in Tower Hamlets, east London, spoke to Socialist Worker in a personal capacity.

He said, “It is an attempt by the Tories to keep unions in the public sector—where the majority of membership is—busy with re-signing members and away from fighting austerity.”

David Cameron and business secretary Sajid Javid want to complicate union subscription payments in order to reduce membership. 

They hope this will bolster their plans, laid out in the Trade Union Bill, for a 50 percent turnout for strike ballots to be legal. 

Tory cabinet office minister Matt Hancock claimed scrapping check-off would save money by cutting administration costs. Yet it is the unions that pay for the processing cost of check-off.

The PCS civil service workers’ union faced a similar attack when the Home Office removed check-off in 2014. 

PCS national executive member Marianne Owens told Socialist Worker in a personal capacity, “It is a direct attack on workers’ rights and their ability to organise and fight back against austerity.

“They want to make membership to trade unions a difficult task to weaken workers’ ability to resist.”

Attack

This attack on check-off was extended to the Department for Work and Pensions and HMRC tax office in March and April 2015.

But PCS union members have countered this attack. Marianne said, “We had to go out to sign up our members on direct debit—a lot of hard work and organising had to be done.

“Despite the difficulty we engaged with our members and we managed to retain 78 percent.” But she explained that “this meant we had to focus a lot of our resources on getting it done”.

Marianne said, “Members are also facing privatisation and further attacks on their jobs, pensions, and terms and conditions. 

“You need the union to fight these attacks.”

Cameron is trying to finish what former Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s war on trade unions did not finish 30 years ago. 

The Tories see the power workers have to fight back. “It is all part of a plan to weaken people’s fightback, stop strikes and deny people a political voice,” John explained. 

Unite union general secretary Len McCluskey has even said he would support “illegal” action.  

He said, “If the Tories wish to put trade unionism beyond the law then so be it—we are ready for the fight.”

He also warned that “the time for rhetoric would soon be over”. 

But the time for serious resistance has already begun. John said, “The Tories only have a small majority. 

“We should resist, start a campaign to oppose the Tories’ attacks, and show that there is resistance.”


Half of the strikes were "illegal"

New research shows how the Tories’ new anti-union laws could stop workers’ exercising their right to strike.

The study was co-authored by University of Salford professor of employment relations Ralph Darlington. 

It found that 85 of 158 strikes surveyed between 1997 and 2015 would have been illegal under proposals in the Trade Union Bill.

This means 3.3 million workers would have been blocked from going on strike legally. 

The Tories claim their bill would make strike ballots “more democratic”, but its only aim is to block resistance. 

The report said, “The legislation has been principally designed to try to make it much harder for unions to take strike action and to weaken potential future union resistance to more austerity.”

But workers can still fight back. The study found that a crucial factor in winning strike votes was when union leaders offered a lead. 

It also found that left wing union leaders can make a difference. For instance, Ralph argues the RMT rail workers’ union having left wing officials helped build resistance to bosses’ and solidarity with other groups 

of workers.

He found that the turnout is always higher in workplace ballots than postal ballots. 

That’s because workers can feel more confident to take action when there’s a sense that it’s a collective decision. 

Aim

The Tories aim is to criminalise strikes.

They want to give bosses the power to decide on picket line rules and threaten workers with legal action.

The report argues that with workers’ ability to take action restricted, “leverage campaigns” could become the unions’ “weapon of choice”. 

This is when union members put pressure on bosses and shareholders to resolve a dispute.

The Unite union leadership tried to rely on leverage tactics, instead of calling workers out, before it backed down to bosses at the Grangemouth oil refinery in Scotland two years ago.  

As the report rightly points out,  “leverage campaigns” are more limited than industrial action. It found that workers’ anger towards austerity has continually created pressures for union leaders to act.

This pressure has led the TUC to call a mass demonstration outside the Tory party conference in Manchester on 4 October. 

The report also suggests this anger could explode into unofficial walkouts.

But it is clear that this proposed bill is only designed to smash workers’ rights and their ability to use their collective strength to stop the Tories’ attacks. 


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