David Cameron has threatened new anti-union laws to make it harder for unions to call lawful strikes.
Cameron said: “When strikes are going to take place that are hugely disruptive to other people’s lives they should at least have the support of a good share of the members of that trade union.” He is reported to be considering a proposal from London mayor Boris Johnson that strike ballots must secure an absolute majority, rather than just a majority of those voting, to provide a mandate for legal strike action.
New anti-union laws of this kind have long been called for by Boris Johnson, and others on the right of the Tory party, but Cameron’s endorsement for them is a sign that they may be gaining more traction and edging closer to reality.
Even on its own terms, Cameron and Johnson’s case is hypocritical and disingenuous. Boris Johnson, having been elected on a turnout of 38%, would not hold office if his proposal was applied to his own election. And it does not at all follow that a union member who did not vote in a strike ballot can automatically be considered to oppose the strike, as Johnson claims.
Low turnouts in union ballots are themselves products of the corrosive effects of decade of restrictive anti-union laws. Thatcherite legislation, unchallenged during 13 years of Labour government, compels unions to hold postal ballots for strikes, individualising and atomising what should be a collective decision-making process, shaped by face-to-face discussion, assembly, and voting in workplaces themselves.
It is now fairly routine for employers to seek, and win, injunctions against unions to rule strikes illegal, as at Lambeth College in south London recently. There is, technically, no positive right to strike enshrined in British law, so the law is already hugely weighted against unions.
The labour movement’s current campaigning against the anti-union laws is largely tokenistic. The Campaign for Trade Union Freedom, formed in 2013 from a merger of two separate campaigns (the United Campaign for the Repeal of the Anti-Trade Union Laws, and the Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions), organising briefings and speakers meetings, with top tables heavy with union general secretaries. But there is little rank-and-file involvement, and no direct action focus. Few unions have been prepared to confront the anti-union laws head on.
A more confrontational attitude will be needed if this latest potential attack is to be seen off, and if organised labour in Britain is to win greater freedoms to fight.