The Tories proposed Industrial Relations Bill is rightly seen by many trade unionists as an attempt to weaken the bargaining position of workers as compared with that of their employers.
The main feature of the Bill is to be the outlawing of certain practices as “unfair industrial actions”. Anyone financially harmed by such an action will be able to take the matter to an Industrial Tribunal or to a new National Industrial Relations Court and obtain damages from those responsible. Even a person threatened with an “unfair” action will be able to go to the Court and get an order outlawing it. Most of the practices that will be regarded as unfair are ones which over the years workers have found effective in protecting their wages and working conditions and organisations from the pressures of their employers, such as
- Strikes to get an employer to sack someone who refuses to join a trade union.
- The blacking of supplies from other firms to a firm whose workers are on strike.
- The “pre-entry closed shop” where a worker must belong to a trade union before he can get a particular job.
- For “organisations and individuals” other, than registered trade unions to get workers to threaten to or to go on strike without notice, i.e. sudden unofficial strikes .
- To organise any industrial action in support of an “unfair” action.
It is true that some of these practices, especially the closed shop, can be and have been abused in the sense that they have been directed against other workers rather than against employers. But this is a matter to be settled by discussion and the growth of understanding within the working class and not by the laws of the capitalist State. The same applies to the other ostensibly democratic safeguards that will be imposed on registered trade unions supposedly to protect their individual members. It is undeniable that unions today are not always under the democratic control of their members but once again this is something for workers to settle themselves without State intervention.
Some of the proposals could benefit some workers but are of a comparatively minor nature. There will be, for instance, an appeal against unfair dismissal (though this should be less effective than the strike commonly employed in some industries as a remedy for this) and an increase in the periods of notice for long service employees; it will be “unfair” for employers to try to dominate registered trade unions.
The provisions of the 1875 Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act which make strikers in gas, electricity and water works liable to prosecution and fines will be repealed, but such strikes along with others the government and the Industrial Relations Court claim “may seriously threaten the national health, safety or economy and/or the livelihood of a substantial portion of the community” will be subject to special provisions. In these cases a cooling-off period of 60 days and a strike ballot can be ordered. This ballot, in another of the ostensibly democratic provisions of the Bill, will be secret.
A secret ballot is not the only way of reaching a democratic decision. It was a radical demand in the last century because in a class-divided society (where one section of the voters are economically dependent on another) those opposed to the government or social system could be penalised for the way they voted. This danger does not apply in ballots within trade unions, though it is true that in some cases solidarity might make some workers afraid to identify themselves as opposed to strike action. This, and not some commitment to democratic principle, is one reason why the Tories want a secret ballot rather than the vote of a delegate conference or a show of hands at a mass meeting. An individual ballot is the most democratic procedure but to organise it properly requires time. Often it is essential to get a quick decision as to whether or not to strike so as not to give the employers some time to prepare against it. A government-imposed strike ballot would be a delaying tactic that will benefit employers; it will also allow the press to whip up a campaign for a vote not to strike. Some unions already provide for secret ballots before strike action and, here again, the most appropriate method of deciding whether or not to strike is a matter for the workers involved not the State.
At present trade unions can be registered and enjoy certain rights as compared with non-registered unions or groups of workers. The Bill proposes to withdraw from what are called “other combinations of workers” certain of the rights they now enjoy along with registered trade unions. For instance, as we saw, unlike registered unions such combinations will no longer be protected against claims for damages for calling or threatening to call sudden strikes. Nor would their funds be protected against damages in the same way as those of registered unions. These “other combinations of workers” will mainly be shop stewards’ and rank-and-file committees such as exist in some industries alongside the official trade unions. Such committees have proved useful supplements to the unions so that the proposed moves against them represent a very real attempt to hinder workers’ industrial organisation and action.
Workers’ industrial organisation, whether in trade unions or other bodies, is necessary as long as capitalism lasts even though it is only defensive since as long as the owning and employing class control political power they are in the end in the stronger position. Workers are right to oppose the Tory Bill just as they were to oppose last year’s Labour Bill. The ways of how to combat it, including even perhaps Heath’s suggestion of a general strike, will have to be fully discussed and democratically agreed. It should not be forgotten, however, that the Tories have the political power to push through this Bill because a large number of workers, including a substantial proportion of the 10 million union members, voted for them at the general election earlier this year. Many of these could well be on the government’s side in the event of a showdown.
But one thing is certain. The class struggle cannot be suppressed by laws and, if the Bill does become law, will still go on. Whether the Bill’s provisions will prove workable in the face of mass refusals to pay damages or to vote in a government-imposed strike ballot remains to be seen. Workers will no doubt take advantage of the few favourable provisions and try to find ways around the others. The necessity will remain for such defensive, industrial actions to be supplemented by conscious political action aimed at converting the means of production from the class property of a privileged few into the common property of the whole community so ending the whole wages system.