Predictably, the mainstream press has been full of suggestions, from figures such as “Paymaster General” Francis Maude MP, that the relatively low turnouts in some of the unions’ strike ballots for June 30 somehow delegitimises their actions.
Certainly, it would be preferable if our unions did not have to jump through the hoop of a bureaucratic and atomising balloting process, where workers receive their voting papers individually, at home, away from the collectivism and solidarity of the workplace. A mass workplace meeting that took a vote on whether to strike would be infinitely more democratic and “legitimate” than any bureaucratic process demanded by Thatcher’s anti-union laws.
A third of a union’s members voting to take strike action cannot render an action illegitimate. Should the non-voting majority have a right of veto over the actions of those who did vote?
The entire balloting process, deliberately rigged to make it as difficult as possible for a union to take official strike action, is an imposition on the labour movement by Thatcherite (and Blairite-Brownite) legality. But it is the current legal process and does not (yet) demand that everyone votes in order that the votes which are cast are considered “legitimate”.
Some Tories, like Dominic Raab and Boris Johnson, and senior business figures like the Confederation of British Industry want to change that.
They want new laws that will require an absolute majority (or, in the CBI’s proposals, a total of at least 40% of all those eligible to vote), rather than just a majority of those voting, for a strike to be allowed. There are also new recommendations for strike bans on civilian workers employed by the police force, and senior government figures have in the past hinted at moves to ban strikes by other public sectors workers in “key” services (such as transport, post and the emergency services). But if their own proposals for balloting restrictions were imposed on their own elections, politicians like Raab and Johnson would be out of a job!
Whether they like it or not, the strike ballots are perfectly legitimate, even according to the framework of existing anti-union law.
What will give them real democratic legitimacy from a rank-and-file, socialist point of view is how well activists can build them and how solid they can be made.