The Queen’s speech threatened that the government would “bring forward legislation to reform trade unions and to protect essential public services against strikes”. This has posed the question within the working-class and trade union movement on the necessity to organise against such anti-worker, anti-social legislation. Trade union leaders have voiced their opposition to the government’s attacks on the right of working people to defend their interests. It is crucial that a broad movement to turn back the government’s attacks is developed.
The very opposite of the government’s presumptions is the case. The Conservatives are suggesting that the trade unions are the ones which are attacking and wrecking society and public services and need reforming. Other voices are conciliating with this reactionary suggestion. What the organised workers’ movement sees is that the anti-social offensive and the austerity agenda are harming not only the interests of working people but of the functioning of society and are wrecking public services. Therefore not only the interests and dignity of working people is at stake, but so is the broad issue of the public good. “Reform” of trade unions and outlawing strikes in public services is an attempt to crush and criminalise the resistance of the working class and people to the austerity agenda with its associated privatisation, cuts to public services and attacks on workers’ rights and interests. It is an attempt to prevent the workers from bringing their numbers and organisation into play in this resistance, and is itself an abuse of power by the government for which they have no mandate.
During Margaret Thatcher’s era, the neo-liberal agenda was born and developed, bringing with it the destruction of the manufacturing base and overturning the functioning of the social contract between labour and capital, and between the state and working people. To do so required setting out to smash the fighting capacity of the working class movement. The most militant trade unions were seriously weakened by the closure of so many of the large-scale manufacturing and energy industries in Britain. Following this the public sector employers were often the biggest employers across the industrial wastelands created in this period, where only smaller mainly unorganised workplaces existed. As a consequence the services and pay, terms and conditions of the public sector workers remained better protected by their trade union organisations, which also benefited everyone except the rich. This is why the government is proposing to take on mainly the public sector trade unions with more legislation under the hoax that it is to “protect essential public services against strikes”. The real aim of this legislation is to stop workers being able to organise in any way, and further impose monopoly right above public right.
On the day of the Queen’s speech many workers were discussing these issues as the proposals were announced. A very big concern is the fate of facilities agreements – time-off for trade union duties during work – which allow workers to represent their members in negotiations in their workplace and represent them over grievances, when sick, or being disciplined and so on. This facility time had constantly been attacked by the Coalition government ministers previously, and now unions know that the government plans a further assault on this. Previously, the Coalition government had torn up the facility agreement with the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) in the Civil Service, disrupting the right of workers to get proper representation and forcing trade union representatives to use up their holidays to represent members and attend trade union conferences. The new government now hopes to run this out throughout the public sector so as to make it impossible for public sector workers to exercise their right to organise in a trade union and defend themselves.
Also of concern is the government’s plan to end members’ direct payment to their unions via their pay (DOCAS). Already the Coalition government had forced government departments not to enter into agreements with PCS to deduct membership fees from pay. Now the intention is to impose this on the whole public sector even though it is a service the unions pay the employers to carry out. This starkly highlights the anti-union, anti-worker nature of these plans of the ruling elite to try and break the trade union finances and organisation.
Another issue is the fact the bill would legislate on the political fund, requiring members of a union to “opt in” to payment of the union’s General Political Fund and Affiliated Political Fund rather than having to “opt out” as at present. There is concern that this is aimed to try and sabotage the right of trade unions to act in a political way to defend their members, and provide funding to the Labour Party and any other party to which the trade unions had decided to affiliate. It is part of the attacks on the cohesion of society, denying that collective rights exist, or that there are common interests other than the imposed values of the fraudulent “one nation”. It is also a step to consolidating parties such as the Labour Party as cartel parties without mass participation.
The government wants to implement with this legislation a measure which the government hopes will rule out any strikes in the public sector with trade unions having to get members to return a ballot of 50% of their members with 40% of eligible union members voting for the strike. The irony, of course, is that the Conservative government itself has formed a government with only 24% of the electorate voting for it.
The aim of the government, on behalf of the monopoly elite they represent, is to wipe out any issue of organised workers having a say in anything at work and in society. They want to stop workers being able to organise in any way while they enable the diktat of the ruling elite to ride roughshod over the public sector workers, further excluding them from decisions, cutting jobs, pay and privatising services. The issue is how to build resistance and defend the workers’ organisations against this new offensive.
Within this is the issue of organising the unorganised sections in the public sector caused by fragmentation and privatisation of the health and other public services. There is also the concern for the whole working class of how to organise the unorganised manufacturing workers and the unemployed. Overall, the government’s proposed legislation aims to criminalise opposition and resistance to the austerity agenda and the attacks on public services and those workers who deliver them. These are questions that must be seriously considered and taken up by the working class at this time as part of building its Workers’ Opposition and defending the rights of all.
There is no lack of genuine concern within the working-class and trade union movement. This has been demonstrated time and time again both by the rank and file and at TUC Congresses, and in the many demonstrations that have been held during the period of the Coalition. There has been resistance to the neo-liberal austerity agenda and a growing consciousness of fighting for the alternative. Now the question presents itself in all earnest of how to be effective in fighting back and restoring the equilibrium against the attempts of the Cameron government to target the trade unions as “the enemy within”. The issue is to entirely reverse the direction that the government is taking society. The government must not be allowed to succeed with its Trade Unions Bill! All must organise and take a stand!