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Part 1: A new activist’s guide to strikes, unions and struggle

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It’s great that new people are getting involved in strikes themselves or in building solidarity. Here Sarah Bates answers some of the questions that these activists have raised in meetings
Issue 2832
Trade unionists protesting outside parliament against the anti-union laws being put through. Protesters are holding RMT flags and placards

An RMT union protest against anti-union laws on the day of a  TUC union federation lobby outside parliament (Picture: Guy Smallman)

What’s a picket line?

Picket lines—groups of ­strikers gathering outside their workplace—are the physical manifestation of strikes. They are there to stop ­workers from weakening the ­collective power of the strike by going in to work.

They can also turn away deliveries to the firm that’s targeted. Those who cross the picket line—siding with the bosses and hurting their fellow-workers—are scabs. The word became widely used after socialist Jack London wrote his Ode to a Scab in 1913.

A scab, said London, is “a two-legged animal with a corkscrew soul and a combination backbone made of jelly and glue. Where others have hearts, he carries a tumour of rotten principles.”

A picket line shouldn’t be a place of polite conversation where pleasantries are exchanged before someone goes into work.

It’s a site of persuasion, education and argument—but also confrontation.

Some of the key moments in British working class history have involved mass pickets that ­physically blocked a workplace.

That happened, for example, at Saltley Gate in  1972, a ­crucial moment during the successful miners’ strike.

Pickets are also a vital organising hub for strikers. They are natural places to discuss the next steps for the strike and a sensible place to receive solidarity from socialists or trade unionists.

There’s a reason why the Tories have imposed extra conditions on picket lines—such as formally ­limiting their size. Join picket lines, support picket lines.

Never cross a picket line.


What are the anti‑union laws?

British governments have passed laws outlawing or limiting trade unions for more than 200 years. Labour governments, as well as Tory ones, were frightened of union power and tried to weaken activists’ organisation and tame union power. 

Sometimes workers have fought back by mass strikes and made the laws impossible to implement. At other times they have organised politically to have the laws repealed.

Anti-union laws are pro-boss weapons in the class struggle. Each anti-union law makes it harder to take action. The threat is that a union could be sued if it doesn’t follow the law.

Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher led the charge against organised workers with anti-union laws in the 1980s. These took strike decisions away from mass meetings and enforced individual postal ballots.

Unions lost control of their rule books and had to follow ­government dictates about internal elections. Solidarity action with other workers was outlawed.

And the Trade Union Reform Act in 1993 was one of the laws that meant all strike ballots had to be postal and unions had to give bosses notice of intention to ballot—and let them know the result.

The Trade Union Act in 2016 was a vicious attack on the right to strike. Critically, it brought in minimum turnout threshold for strike ballots. And it imposed 14 days’ notice period for walkouts.

The effect is obvious—the Tories want to make it harder for workers to strike, and to stall action when unions feel they have the wind behind them. 

But none of these could have been implemented without union leaders accepting them.

And lots of union leaders liked the new laws because they gave them an alibi not to call action, and a way to discipline the more ­militant sections of the membership.

Now the Tories want even more anti-union laws. Activists have to push for them to be opposed. But if they are passed they also have to insist they are made ­inoperable through defiance.


What is the TUC?

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) is the federation of trade unions. It brings together 48 unions with a total of 5.5 million members across England and Wales. There is also a separate but linked Scottish TUC.

At one time the TUC was seen as the “general staff” of the labour movement, orchestrating the strategy of the unions and ­welcomed as a negotiating partner by governments.

Today individual unions, ­particularly the big unions, are the key decision-makers and the TUC is less powerful. But it can be important.

It coordinated the big demonstration in June that saw tens of thousands on  the “Britain Demands Better” protest in London.

Union leaders attempt to play a mediating role between ­workers and bosses. They hammer out compromises rather than pushing ­struggles to their fullest conclusions.

As full-time, and generally ­well-paid, officials they are divorced from the day-to-day experience of workers.

But union leaders do have to have at least some awareness of their members’ views. And without any struggle they would have no social power.

The TUC is even further removed from workers. It doesn’t directly have any members who can hold it to account. When workers strike they think of what their own union leaders are saying and doing, not so much the TUC.

The general council, the leadership body of the TUC, is made up of the top layer of the union bureaucracy. So the decisions it makes reflect the interests of that narrow group.

High office in the TUC is often a route to mainstream acceptance. Dame Frances O’Grady received a life peerage in October this year as she was retiring as TUC leader. 

Her predecessor Sir Brendan Barber was knighted for “services to employment relations”.

At key moments, when it seems like the working class is on the front foot, the TUC has played a decisive role in negotiating peace—or ­surrender—with the bosses.

A good example is the 1926 General Strike, when the TUC called off the action and negotiated a rotten deal with the government.


Are the unions democratic?

Everyone should be a member of a union in their workplace, and should be an active trade ­unionist.

It is a crucial forum for ­organising collectively against employers, and a great way for raising ­class‑­conscious politics.

Different unions have different rules but each one is more democratic than the Tories and big corporations. Formally, they have a big apparatus that enables layers of democracy.

Union members can elect the ­general secretary and the ­leadership bodies. These votes matter.

But even when militants secure such positions there are then immense pressures to draw them into the bureaucratic world cut off from those who elected them.

Even in the most democratic union, full-time officials can call off strikes—for instance, to consider a bad deal—even before workers are consulted.

The key democratic bodies are mass meetings of union members and strikers, elected ­committees of strikers during disputes, and ­meetings of union reps within a firm, industry or service and across ­different workplaces.

These can put pressure on the officials, or organise independently of them. Join a union, be active and raise wider politics as well as battles in the workplace.

  • What’s the question you would like us to answer? Let us know and we’ll try to do it in a follow up to this article. Email [email protected] or message us on social media here

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