Briefing: The Anti-Trade Union Laws

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Author: Conor S
First Published: Newsletter 12/04/20

If you want to understand the state of industrial action and the trade union movement at the present day, it is essential to know about the anti-trade union laws of the last few decades. Successive Tory governments have implemented increasingly harsh laws limiting the right to organise and to strike, and the last Labour government failed to reverse this trend. This article will serve as a brief history lesson on those laws.

Roughly speaking, the anti-union measures taken over the last 40 years fall into three categories:

  1. Reducing the scope of issues over which industrial action can be taken, and the scope of permitted action;
  2. Where action is permitted, making it as difficult as possible for that action to be legitimately taken;
  3. Increasing the liability of trade unions and the ability for legal action to be taken against trade unions as the result of industrial action.

Between them, these measures have made it almost impossible for effective industrial action to be taken. As an example, look at what happened with Royal Mail last November. The CWU balloted its members on whether the first national postal strike in a decade should take place. On a massive turnout of 76% (higher than the General Election turnout!), 97% of members voted in favour of strike action. This was not just a clear mandate for a strike; this was an overwhelming show of support. And yet Royal Mail managed to get the strike banned by the High Court on the grounds of “irregularities” (mostly relating to where workers filled out their postal ballots).

This is an example of the anti-union laws working exactly as intended. They were designed to restrict the action unions could take, and make it so tortuously difficult to take action that effective industrial disruption has become almost impossible.

When we talk about anti-union laws, the focus is normally on the 2016 Trade Union Act. This is understandable; this is the most recent piece of anti-union legislation, and it is an incredibly egregious piece of legislation. Among the limitations and burdens placed on unions by the Act are that industrial ballots must attract a 50% turnout; that, for important public services, 40% of ALL eligible workers must vote in favour (so if 39% of eligible workers voted in favour and 12% voted against, strike action would be unlawful); and that unions must provide official supervisors for pickets who must adhere to strict regulations at all times.

But protecting workers’ rights cannot be limited to just fighting to eliminate this one Act. Since 1980, the number of Acts passed by Parliament which contain anti-union measures is into double figures. If workers’ rights, including the right to organise and the right to strike, are to be protected, then much more will be needed. The objective must be simple: to eliminate every single piece of anti-union legislation.