Unite's victory in appealing against the second injunction given against strikes by British Airways workers was extremely significant. If the injunction had been allowed to stand, it would have served as an invitation to bosses across both the public and private sector to seek court bans against any big strike in their workplace and a message that, no matter how spurious the grounds on which they sought that injunction were, they were likely to have it granted.
The successful appeal does not change the overall balance of forces but it may arrest the bosses' momentum; they were on a spectacular roll after winning high-profile injunctions against strikes at Network Rail, Johnston Press and British Airways (twice).
The situation as a whole is, however, still extremely serious. The ruling-class has obviously made a concerted turn towards exploiting technicalities that have always existed within the law in order to clamp down on serious industrial action. The right to strike remains, but the right to take effective strike action is under serious threat.
This, perhaps more than any other issue, exposes the class-biased nature of the judiciary. The establishment myths about the “neutral” and “non-partisan” role played by the law and its enforcers (the police, the courts, prisons) are exposed as just that – myths.
The laws that British Airways bosses used to win their injunctions combine a micromanaging pedantry with sufficient vagueness to mean that it is almost impossible for any union – particularly ones dealing with international memberships of several thousand – to avoid falling foul of them somewhere. The fact that employers frequently do not provide unions with up-to-date information about moves workers may have made between workplaces or pay-grades hardly helps. The anti-union laws have nothing to do with ensuring democracy and transparency within union procedure and everything to do with making sure that unions cannot fight effectively.
The workers' movement should fight for its own positive charter of workers' rights, which allow unions to conduct strike votes in mass workplace meetings (rather than in the atomised postal form the law currently demands) and which enable effective picketing to keep a strike solid (rather than the notional six-person “pickets” currently tolerated by the law). We should fight for these things as part of a struggle for working-class democracy; a struggle to carve out the maximum possible control for working-class people over our own destinies even within the framework of capitalism.
Unlike some in the labour movement, who have capitulated entirely to “partnership” models and insist that relationships between bosses and workers should be based on collaboration rather than confrontation, bosses understand the fundamentally confrontational nature of capitalist social organisation and organise to fight the class struggle as a struggle, using any means they can. The fight against the anti-union must therefore be a fight for working-class democracy – a fight against a way of organising and running society whereby workers have no collective means of asserting an alternative agenda to those of their bosses.
The anti-union laws are based fundamentally on the assumption that the ruling-class has a right to rule, simply because it is the ruling class. Our class should challenge that assumption.