By Sam Ord
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Ending strikes at 12 weeks can mean defeat

Putting limitations on the amount of days workers can strike can lead to loss of momentum and morale
Issue 2791

Chep UK workers on picker lines in Manchester earlier this year

The idea that workers can strike for only 12 weeks before they have to stop and have another postal ballot is often put forward by national union officials. 
 
In fact, it’s a myth, even under the British anti-trade union laws that put severe limitations on strikes. It is true that workers’ ­continued employment is only legally ­protected during the first 12 weeks of strikes. After 12 weeks, you can be dismissed if you take industrial action and your employer has tried to settle the dispute.
 
So for the first 12 weeks ­workers do have additional limited protection against dismissal.  This “protected industrial action” was first introduced by Tony Blair’s Labour Party in 1999, and was for the first eight weeks of a strike.
 
The legislation was essentially a gift to the trade union bureaucracy in exchange for their silence over Blair’s refusal to undo the vast bulk of the Tories’ anti-union laws.
 
Many unions saw this partial protection as a boost to their union organising. But rank and file militants rightly condemned New Labour for failing to scrap all anti-union laws. 
 
To further sweeten trade union leaders, the Blair government increased this partial protection to 12 weeks in 2004. But this has now come to be seen as a limit on what action is possible, not an additional cover. Cancelling or suspending strikes after 12 weeks to renew legal protections though a ballot carries risks in itself. 
 
It can weaken the effectiveness of the strike, lose momentum, and in the worst case, result in an unnecessary defeat. Suspending strikes after 12 weeks can also lead to lost momentum and fractures in the workers’ unity. 
 
After losing wages during the first round of strikes, fewer workers may not vote to walk out again, and the strike could be lost. It threw the argument back to the individualised ballot rather than the togetherness of the picket line.
 
If companies know that a strike will cease after 12 weeks, some will be tempted to sit out action until it reaches that deadline. If workers return to work while they have a further vote, they can replenish the lost production and restart bosses’ profits, undoing the impact they had while on strike. So even if workers are going to follow the 12 week limit, they should  make sure that they don’t stop striking in order to have a second ballot.
 
That might mean starting  the vote after nine weeks on strike or so to make sure the result comes in time to continue the action without a gap.  But crucially there is no legal requirement to stop striking after 12 weeks. It just means the protections are less. 
 
That’s  a serious consideration that strikers would have to discuss. But as always the barrier to dismissals and victimisation is the unity of workers and the solidarity from others. The university workers preparing now for a second ound of strikes can’t be restrained by a 12 week limit.
 
Employers are very unlikely to get rid of a whole workforce, especially at a time of labour shortages. All the great strikes that are remembered from the past faced the same issues and the same threats. 
 
Workers are not powerless. They have potential strength—much greater than any law will grant them. If workers withdraw their labour, the source of profit stops.  Workers shouldn’t rely exclusively on laws that were designed as a sop to cover up New Labour’s betrayals. Against ruthless bosses, it will sometimes be necessary to have extended strikes, and nobody should think they have to end after 12 weeks.

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