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Strike Action and The Trade Unions

The government is pressing ahead with legislation to make it more difficult for trade unions to strike. The scale of the reforms goes far wider than previously thought at the general election when it was thought that the Tory plan was for strikes to be made unlawful unless 50% of those being asked to strike voted in the ballot.

According to the GUARDIAN:

In a set of proposals on a par with those introduced by Norman Tebbit in 1985, Sajid Javid, the business secretary, is also to require that at least 40% of those asked to vote support the strike in most key public services. In the case of 100 teachers asked to strike, the action would only be lawful if at least 50 teachers voted and 40 of them backed the strike. The double threshold would have to be met in any strike called in health, education, fire, transport, border security and energy sectors – including the Border Force and nuclear decommissioning
(15th July 2015).

The proposed legislation will:

* Require all unions, not just those affiliated to the Labour Party, to ask members whether they wish to pay the political levy and then repeat the question every five years.
* Propose that unlawful picketing should become a criminal as opposed to civil offence and new protections should be available for those workers unwilling to strike.
* Compel unions to renew any strike mandate with a fresh ballot within four months of the first ballot and give employers the right to hire strike-breaking agency staff as well as require a union to give the employer at least a fortnight’s notice before the industrial action starts.
* Empower the government to set a limit on the proportion of working time any public sector worker can spend on trade union duties.
* Give the government certification officer powers to fine trade unions as much as £20,000 for breaches of reporting rules including an annual audit on its protests and pickets.
* Require a clear description of the trade dispute and the planned industrial action on the ballot papers so that all union members are clear what they are voting for.

The trade unions believe that the trade union legislation will make strike action almost an impossibility while the capitalist left see this as an attempt to block the tactic of strikes becoming political general strikes leading to worker’s councils and “revolution”.

How much do Strikes Achieve?

The number of working days lost due to strikes was 704,000 in the 12 months to April 2015, but this is a far cry from the near 13m days lost through strike action on average in the 1970s, the heyday of union strike action. This has worried the capitalist left who look to strikes as a barometer of the intensity of the class struggle. Is this true?

When Marx wrote about the class struggle and strikes more than a century ago he did not share the view held by the capitalist left. In fact, in his VALUE, PRICE AND PROFIT, for example (Sections IV and XIV) and in WAGE-LABOUR AND CAPITAL (p.35 in the Whitehead edition) he took a somewhat pessimistic line based on his understanding of how capitalism works.

While urging resistance to the efforts of employers to depress wages Marx thought it was largely a defensive struggle, with only occasional opportunities for the workers to secure “temporary improvement”. His view was that the times when the workers can hope to gain an improvement were when the capitalists were doing well, expanding production and accumulating capital. In the reverse phase of the “trade cycle”, with sales and profits falling and unemployment rising, he thought the workers could do little. He wrote:

The relations between the supply and demand of labour-power undergo perpetual change, and with them the market price of labour-power. If the supply overshoots the demand wages sink, although it might in such circumstances be necessary to test the real state of demand and supply by a strike, for example, or any other method.

What has been gained?

It will be noticed that Marx talked of “testing” the situation when trade is bad. The capitalist left and trade union leaders reject this. They think that if enough workers strike they can make big gains in spite of adverse conditions. As regards past experience the evidence is all against this view. Apart from 1921 and 1926, the record number of days lost through strikes in any year was in 1893, when the total was over 30 million. This included Lancashire cotton workers who were out for five months, and 400,000 miners. Both strikes failed and wages generally did not rise.

Another outstanding example was the 1921-1930 decade. Unemployment was high, trade was bad and prices were falling – in all by 30 per cent. In those years which included the General Strike of 1926, the number of days lost by strikes and lockouts averaged 31 million a year, but the strikes completely failed to prevent wages also falling by about 30 per cent.

Discontent and Resistance

The question arises to what extent recent experience differs from the past. Various changes have taken place with substantial anti-trade union legislation since 1979. Although there are many more trade unionists than in the 19th century still only a minority of the workers join trade unions.

Around 6.4 million employees in the UK were trade union members in 2014. The level of overall union members was broadly unchanged from 2013, with a reduction of only 40,000 over the year (Trade Union Membership, Department for Innovation and skills, 2014). Current membership levels are well below the peak of over 13 million in 1979.

There has also been trade union membership tilted towards the public not the private sector of the economy leading the trade unions to adopt a policy against privatisation. The actually number of trade unions as members has continued to decline, along with the decline of workplace organisation, the open hostility of a number of major forms to having trade unions (e.g. Walmart), along with the increase in self-employment and the casualization of the workforce like zero-hours contracts.

Most of the recent strikes have been in the public sector - teachers, local government and civil servants. These are not only a reflection of workers’ discontent but also a reflection of stronger and better-organised resistance by employers. It is a truism that the most successful strike is the one that never happens because when trade is brisk employers may yield to the mere threat of a strike interrupting production.

In recent years, with a deep trade depression causing a high level of unemployment (over two million at its highest point), employers have taken a tougher line because they stand to lose when they have full order books and are hard pressed to meet delivery dates. Also, the policy of successive Tory and Labour governments is to privatise the state sector, introducing new contracts, changing conditions of work and pensions, and imposing a maximum 1 per cent pay increase.

The policy of the government towards workers in the public sector has led to a big rise in the number of working days lost through industrial action. A total of 788,000 days were lost in 2014, up 75 per cent on the previous year, according to figures from the Office for national Statistics. The figure is higher than the average for both the 2000s and 1990s and is the third highest for the past 10 years (INDEPENDENT 16th July 2015). However, the strikes which have taken place in the public sector have seldom been successful when pitted against the intransigence of the employers in an economic environment unconducive to strike action.

How trade unions will resist or manage the new anti-trade union legislation remains to be seen. However strikes are not a barometer of the class struggle which takes place on a daily basis over the intensity and extent of class exploitation irrespective of whether workers are members of trade unions.

Socialists have always seen the usefulness of trade unions in the class struggle as means of getting higher wages and better working conditions for their members. However socialists only give support to trade unions when they take action in the interest of the working class as a whole. We have stated in the past that trade unions should not have leaders and that decisions should be democratic with a majority voting for a strike and a majority voting for a strike to be called off. And we have stressed time and time again that trade unions should not bankroll the anti-working class Labour Party or the capitalist left like the SWP and the reformist ‘socialist’ party.

Nevertheless we note the anti-trade union spitefulness of the Tory legislation. If a trade union passed all the hoops presented to them by the proposed legislation, would the Tory Party and their friends in the media applaud the democratic action of the trade union membership in going on strike? Would they hell!

Marx was right to highlight the difficulty trade unions had in the class struggle. Not only is the playing field tilted in favour of the capitalist class but they own the field, write the rules and pay the referee to enforce them.

To get the capitalist class off the back of the working class requires a principled socialist response from workers. And for a very good reason.

Politically, the class struggle is fought over the ownership of the means of production. At the moment raw resources, factories, transport, communication and distribution points are all monopolised by the capitalist class solely for making profit not in meeting human need. Trade union action is solely defensive and cannot be used for political purposes by the fragmented nature of their organisation and composition. A socialist majority has to secure the machinery of government, including the armed forces. To fundamentally change the ownership of the means of production, what it is used for and for whom, is through the political action of a principled socialist party not trade unions.

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