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Coalition plans more laws to block any union activity

This article is over 9 years, 11 months old
Bosses have always hated unions. Raymie Kiernan looks at new plans to restrict workers’ ability to organise against attacks by their employers
Issue 2404
The government is out to make anti union laws that affected the 2010 British Airways dispute worse
The government is out to make anti union laws that affected the 2010 British Airways dispute worse (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Imagine a trade unionist’s nightmare.

Reps get no time off for union business. At least half of members need to vote for any ballot result to be lawful. 

And bosses get to send out an argument against striking with every ballot paper.

Bosses also get a fortnight’s notice before workers can strike and there is no legal ban on them employing scab agency labour to break strikes.

But all these are real proposals from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ employment law review written into the Tory-Lib Dem coalition pact in 2010.

The overarching principle of the review, “Making the labour market more flexible, efficient and fair,” is to make it easier to sack workers and give them little or no legal redress.


It is the policy behind recent headline noises being made by Eton toffs prime minister David Cameron and London mayor Boris Johnson. They are attacking the right to strike (see below).

It has seen the bosses’ CBI lobby group present their wishlist to limit strikes. 

And Cameron gave millionaire owner of pay day loan company Wonga, Lord Beecroft, free reign to shape employment law in Britain. 

One of business secretary Vince Cable’s team described Beecroft’s report as “bonkers”. 

Yet many of his proposals have got through the back door into law.

The more well-known proposal may be his call for “no fault dismissal” or “fire at will” rights for bosses.

Recent changes to Employment Tribunals originated with Beecroft. 

They mean workers are now charged between £960 and £1,060 to get a full hearing and £250 just to make a claim. 

This has led to a 79 percent drop in workplace disputes reaching Employment Tribunals.

Many proposals in Beecroft’s report first appeared in a 2010 report by right wing think tank Policy Exchange, titled Modernising Industrial Relations.

It was published to press the bosses’ advantage. 

And it came soon before a landmark court judgement in favour of the trade unions in March the following year.

The legal victory for the unions was the culmination of a series of challenges to court injunctions that had overridden democratic union ballots.


The bosses had been wielding the weapon of the courts to get strikes declared illegal on ballot technicalities despite them having no bearing on the result. 

The March 2011 judgement opposed applying a “standard of perfection” for holding ballots, which would “set traps or hurdles for the union which have no legitimate purpose or function”.

It may have prevented some of the more spurious attempts by bosses to subvert union democracy but it certainly hasn’t stopped them. 

The Tories want working class people to pay for the bosses’ crisis and they will stop at nothing to curtail the right to resist their class war.

Management depend on unions’ fear of legal action

Bosses attacking workplace organisation to curtail strikes is as old as the capitalist system they benefit from. As is workers’ resistance to them.

The only reason the bosses are so keen to make the anti-union laws harsher is because they know workers can beat them.

But they hope that just the threat of a court injunction, sequestration of union funds and potentially being sued can be enough to frighten off some union leaders.

Any injunction an employer is granted must at the very least be challenged in court. 

But more importantly we should argue that workers defy the law and strike anyway.

In 2009 construction workers at the Lindsey Oil Refinery in Lincolnshire proved the bosses have no response to militancy from rank and file workers and solidarity from other trade unionists.

Bosses tried to make 51 workers redundant to punish them for their militancy on the site—which shut down when 1,200 workers struck in January that year.

Many of the workers walked out in protest at the redundancies and the bosses sacked 647 workers. 

But thousands walked out across the country in solidarity with the sacked workers.

The scale of the walkouts and the strength of the solidarity forced the bosses to retreat and give all workers their jobs back.

A smaller example, but no less significant in proving the point, was an unofficial walkout by workers in a homeless casework team at Glasgow City Council last August.

Workers walked out in one office in the city on a Friday afternoon against the unfair dismissal of a colleague. 

By the middle of the next week the worker was reinstated after the walkout had spread to all other offices of the same city-wide team.

No trade union had their funds seized, were taken to court and sued or had their general secretary thrown in jail from either of these examples.

In both the Glasgow and Lindsey walkouts the rank and file membership played the critical role.

It emphasises where workers real strength lies and what no amount of anti-union laws can beat.

History we can draw on

As long as people have organised to improve conditions at work bosses have tried to use the law to stop them. 

In the 1830s agricultural labourers in Tolpuddle (pictured) were transported to Australia for organising a union. 

The 1901 Taff Vale judgement allowed bosses to sue unions for losses during strikes. 

In 1972 five dockers were jailed for leading strikes.

Each time workers organised mass protests

—often illegal—to make the laws unworkable until they were reversed.

Do as I say, not as I do

David Cameron and Boris Johnson want new restrictions on workers’ right to strike in “essential services”. 

They say that for strike ballot results to be lawful 50 percent of those eligible should vote.

If that same principle was extended to the elections that put them in office a great many current MPs would not have been elected. 

And Johnson would not be London mayor.

Trouble at the Tribunal

Tories suggest Employment Tribunals as an alternative to union organisation. 

But employers that seriously breach workers’ rights would be subject to a minimum penalty of £100 and a maximum of £5,000. 

If the employer pays within three weeks there’s a 50 percent discount available. 

But there is no enforcement mechanism to make employers pay.

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