Since coming to power in 1979 the Conservative government has passed some of the most class-biased laws in the history of capitalism. Five acts of Parliament have been passed with a view to weakening working class organisation in trade unions. One of them, the 1982 Employment Act, made unions liable to damages and fines and unions have already had to pay in excess of £1.5 million in court actions alone, with more than 100 separate legal actions having been brought against them (Labour Research, May 1989).
Such damages arise out of “unlawful” action but, as recent events have shown, it is becoming increasingly difficult to hold lawful strikes. Several strikes have been termed illegal after court action or been subject to legal proceedings, even after ballots had shown large majorities in favour of strike action. These class laws have also made most secondary action illegal, limited picketing to the place of work, outlawed industrial action in support of a closed shop and prevented unions from disciplining members who refuse to abide by majority strike votes.
Part of the Conservatives’ appeal in 1979 was their pledge to control the unions which had become unpopular owing mostly to the way the events of the so-called winter of discontent had been portrayed in the media and which the Tories claimed had acquired the power to bring down governments and hold the country to ransom. However, if the unions were tamed by the policies of the Conservatives in the early 1980s, the question must be asked as to why is union “power” re- emerging when the same government still committed to curbing that power remains in office?
Importance of Economic Conditions
While it would be wrong to argue that the legal framework has no effect on the effectiveness of trade unions, it needs to be pointed out that the impact this can have is constrained by economic conditions. The anti-union legislation proposed by the Labour government in 1969 (In Place of Strife) and that of the Heath Conservative administration in the early 1970s (the Industrial Relations Act) both failed because the unions were in a fairly strong position as unemployment was at a low level. In the period 1969-79 the proportion of the working population organised in trade unions rose by over 10 per cent and actual membership increased from around 10.5 million to over 13 million.
There are other periods which provide evidence that the strength of trade unionism is very much influenced by the economic conditions of capitalism. In the period 1910-20 unemployment never rose above 5 per cent and prices were rising faster than wages, another factor likely to spur union organisation. Union membership increased from just over 2.5 million to well over 8 million. In the period that followed, unions suffered drastic setbacks. Between 1920-22 unemployment rose from 2 to over 14 per cent and both prices and wages slumped dramatically. Union membership declined by almost 3 million. In the period 1920-33, as a whole one of severe economic depression, union membership declined from 8,348,000 to 4,392,000.
When the Thatcher administration first came to power in 1979 unemployment had already started to rise and continued to climb even more steeply in the early 1980s while at the same time many of those in employment saw a rise in their living standards. Under these conditions union membership slumped by just over 2 million between 1979-84. It was this that was the major reason for the defeats and setbacks the unions faced in this period.
In the last year or so unemployment has begun to fall and there are even labour shortages in some industries. Under these changed circumstances workers are more ready to take industrial action. The level of industrial discontent has not yet reached the scale it did in 1979 but the causes are the same—economic. In 1979 the cause was not a militancy that arose out of thin air but the continuation (by a Labour government) of a highly unpopular incomes policy at a time of rising prices. The recent disputes are the result of various groups of workers, many in the public sector, being offered rises below the rate of inflation so that living standards are once again threatened. Also involved are attempts by employers to dismantle national bargaining structures which at least offer all the workers concerned a minimum standard of wages and conditions. Dismantle this and weaker areas can be picked off and solidarity is threatened.
Not a Spent Force
There are still those who argue that trade unions are in the process of a long-term decline. This theory is supported by reference to the defeats in recent years for groups of workers such as printers, miners and dockers who were previously thought of as the backbone of the union movement. However, such defeats resulted rather from economic and technological changes in the industries concerned. The miners suffered from a falling demand for coal whilst the strength of the printers and dockers had been undermined by technological changes which resulted in a vast reduction in the numbers employed, so weakening their economic position.
There is evidence outside the recent wave of disputes to suggest that the trade union movement is far from being a spent force. The 1987 Annual report of ACAS showed that in that year 90 per cent of all ballots went in favour of the union position with high turnouts and votes of 75 per cent quite common (Labour Research, May 1989). In the year 1987-88 40 per cent of TUC-affiliated unions reported a rise in membership. More recently, returns from USDAW and COHSE have confirmed this trend. Public opinion is also much more favourable to trade unions. A Gallup poll in September 1988 showed 69 per cent of people sampled thought unions were a good thing and a Mori poll found that 88 per cent of union members regarded unions as essential for protecting their interests (Labour Research, June 1989).
The idea that ballots would result in a vast reduction in strikes has been proved wrong. It is economic conditions that determine the level of strike activity and its effectiveness. The government, however, still believes it can prevent strikes by legal enactments and is now planning fresh legislation. New proposals on ballots for strike action are outlined in a draft code of practice. If these proposals become law unions would face further obstacles in carrying out lawful industrial action. Firstly, in the run-up to the ballot they would have to provide an account of the employer’s side of the dispute. Secondly, to call a strike they would have to obtain what is termed as a substantial majority in a turnout of at least 70 per cent. Thirdly, organising a legal ballot would be an extremely lengthy and cumbersome process as so many conditions are laid down. Since the outbreak of the recent industrial unrest further restraints have been announced. These include making unions responsible for their members who take part in unofficial strikes and the outlawing of all secondary action. The complete outlawing of strikes in what are termed essential services has also been under consideration.
Such new anti-union laws, however, will not suppress industrial conflict any more than those already on the statute book have done. Conflict is inherent in the system as it is in the interests of those who own and control the means of producing and distributing goods and services to extract as much surplus from workers as possible so as to increase their profits, whilst workers need to gain as high a price for the sale of their labour power as is possible since it is their only means of existence. So, as long as capitalism exists there will be conflict and the need for trade unions.
What Strikes Reveal
Strikes reveal several things about the society we live in. While employers and politicians engage in rhetoric about democracy, their only concern is in running an authoritarian industrial system. Proof of this fact was provided in the dispute on the docks. In a ballot the workers voted by a majority of 3:1 for a strike. The port employers’ reaction to this was not to accept the vote and enter into negotiations at a national level. Instead they used the law courts to get the strike declared illegal. The union eventually got that decision reversed but by that time the ballot was no longer valid and the Docks Labour Scheme at the centre of the dispute had been repealed by Parliament. Another vote was taken which resulted in the same majority for an indefinite strike. With the highest court having declared that the strike was legal, the employers turned instead to economic coercion. Port by port new contracts involving a deterioration of employment conditions were issued and workers were given an ultimatum to accept them or be sacked with the loss of their right to fairly substantial redundancy payments. The threat worked and the strike crumbled. Capitalism has nothing to do with democracy. Employers will use unelected judges, economic coercion and even the violent apparatus of the state where necessary.
Secondly, if strikes do cause disruption, which they do, this indicates who the useful members of society are. As we have seen in recent months when those who actually do the real work on the railways stop work, the whole rail system grinds to a halt. The same happened on the London underground and London buses. The working class—all those who have to sell their ability to work, manual or mental—produce all the goods, provide all the services and administer society from top to bottom.
What would have happened if Sir Robert Reid and the British Rail Board had gone on strike? The answer is quite simply that it would not have affected a single train. If Thatcher, Kinnock, all their followers in Parliament, the whole of the capitalist class and all the royal family went on strike, they would have to go round the whole country telling everybody they had stopped “work” for us to be any the wiser. These people make no useful contribution to society. The employers and their representatives need the working class as without us the whole system would grind to a halt. But we don’t need them.
The message socialists have is quite simple. The producers and providers of services form an overwhelming majority of the world’s population, so why do we put up with employers and politicians controlling our lives and telling us what we can and cannot have? Why do we accept the fact that the world is owned and controlled by a tiny minority of private and state capitalists?
Workers all over the world have considerable power if we unite and it is about time we organised not just in a defensive struggle over wages and conditions, necessary though this is while capitalism exists, but to take control of the Earth’s resources. That end is worth organising and struggling for and we should not settle for anything less.