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Anti-union laws have stifled strikes—but can be beaten

Five years ago the Tories imposed harsh new anti-union laws. Charlie Kimber asks how effective they have been, and how they can be overcome
Issue 2794
LSE university strikers on the picket line in London

National UCU union strikes show widespread action is possible (Picture: Guy Smallman)

On one level the laws imposed on 1 March 2017 did not achieve what the Tories wanted. The most far-reaching element of the legislation was that at least 50 percent of those eligible to vote had to take part. This was in addition to a majority needing to be returned for strikes to go ahead.

The government estimated that 35 percent of ballots in important public services and 29 percent elsewhere would not reach the new turnout threshold. But the results were much better than that.

An article by Dave Lyddon in Industrial Relations Journal shows that “far fewer ballots now fail to win a simple majority. The 50 percent turnout barrier has led to only half the predicted losses”.

That’s a tribute to the tireless work by activists who campaign for a vote and persuade workers to join the fightback. It’s also a reflection of the impact of plummeting real pay and bosses’ assaults such as fire and rehire. But in two respects the laws have had a big effect. Firstly they have greatly reduced national strikes.

It’s one thing to win a 50 percent turnout among a few hundred or even a few thousand workers. It’s a much bigger task to win it among hundreds of thousands of workers. Without the turnout thresholds, there would probably have been national strikes during the last five years in schools, the civil service, the NHS, local government and perhaps others.

As the laws were passed union leaders made bellicose speeches about defying them. But in practice each one has meekly obeyed the restrictions. The PCS civil service workers’ union, for example, won a strike ballot with a 78 percent Yes vote in April 2019. But it was agonisingly 2 percent short of the turnout requirement and nothing happened. Before 2017 it’s almost certain the strike would have gone ahead.

The CWU Royal Mail ballots have shown that it’s possible to have big turnouts. They beat the thresholds among over 100,000 voters in October 2017, October 2019 and March 2020. But none of these led to strikes due to a combination of legal challenges—for campaigning too effectively—new offers from employers, and union leaders backing off.

The UCU university workers’ union has managed strikes involving a big section of its national membership by having coordinated branch-by-branch votes. These fit their particular sector but aren’t easy to generalise.

The second big effect is that, as always with anti-union laws, they have provided a further alibi for union leaders to shrink from struggle. The typical pattern when facing a major issue is for union leaders to hold a consultative ballot. 

If this comes back with, say, a 30 percent turnout then it’s almost always the death knell for any talk of struggle. But the union general secretary shrugs their shoulders and insists that the lack of response is not their fault. “I wanted to have a strike, but the members were too apathetic and too timid,” they say.

This covers up the leaders’ failure to encourage militancy, push solidarity or stand with the fighting activists at a local level. The insulting pay offer last year to NHS workers is the most obvious example of where there should have been strikes. But the ballot turnout was below the threshold after leaders helped take the energy out of the movement then raised the flag of surrender.

Such examples underline that the laws will probably have to be confronted if there are to be generalised major struggles across Britain. But the impetus for that won’t come from union leaders.

Activists in the unions have to push to win ballots, detonate struggles and back those who do fight—officially or unofficially. The crucial break may well come from insurgent movements outside the mainstream trade union leaders and the Labour Party

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