Monday, 4 October 2010

Industrial action and the law

Mayor of London Boris Johnson has added his voice to that of the CBI's calling for tougher laws governing strike ballots. This comes as a second 24-hour strike grips the London Underground, and it is a perfect demonstration of everything that is wrong with class struggle in this country.

Of course, it is only natural that employers and politicians want to reduce the power of the working class to resist them. Indeed, those that didn't quite simply wouldn't last very long in their positions.

As such, it's a lost cause pointing out the hypocrisy of the proposals. Applying Boris's wish that "unless at least 50% of union members in a workplace take part in a ballot" there can be no strike to political ballots would see us without a parliament or a mayor for London. But even if there a way to do so, reaching him with this point would not see him change his mind.

Likewise, the CBI "wants a minimum of 40% of union members balloted to be in favour of a strike." Applied consistently, we could ask why no democracy whatsoever exists on the management side of industrial relations. But this would not for a second make them reconsider their position.

The fact is plain to see that the laws currently in place for strikes are unneccessarily restrictive. And that, whatever their flaws, workplace ballots offer workers a chance to make the decision for themselves rather than (as in parliament) simply choose somebody else to make that decision for them. Because being able to withdraw your labour when unhappy with working conditions is a fundamental right.

But, as far as the bosses are concerned, the rights of the employer and proprietor should match those of a monarch. If we can think, organise, and act in our own interests, then we are violating their "property rights." On the right, liberty needs property, and those without property can be denied liberty.

This is why responding to the persistent attack on hard-won rights by appealing to their sense of reason is a lost cause. Concessions are not handed down from above out of good will.

It is for this reason that, though offered with the right intentions, the Lawful Industrial Action Bill will not address the issue at hand. In the first instance, its main purpose is to prevent employers from using the courts to block strike action "on minor technicalities." This may put an end to the recent trend of strike bans, but doesn't address the bigger hurdles that Boris and the CBI want to strengthen.

Secondly, it is a bill that never even emerged in 13 years of Labour government, and is unlikely to pass under a Tory one. Cynicism suggests that its purpose isn't even to become law, but to rebuild the old myth of Labour being a party for the working class.

Not to mention that it will be the subject of intensive lobbying by exactly such groups as the CBI.

If we need to affirm how out of touch with even the basic principle behind a strike, we need only turn to CBI deputy director-general John Cridland. He believes that it should "be business as usual, even during a strike." And so "firms must be allowed to hire temps ... to provide emergency cover."

He offers the caveat that "workers have the legal right to withdraw their labour," clearly thinking that conceding that whilst returning to the early 20th century practice of bussing in scabs to break strikes is an acceptable compromise for both sides. Which in effect proves the IWW's point that "the working class and the employing class have nothing in common."

We cannot appeal to the ruling class's sense of reason. Any legal actions, even if effective in the short-term, will act only as a stop-gap in the face of the long term onslaught of the class war.

If we really want to end repressive anti-strike measures, and to stop the business lobby in their efforts to roll back every hard won right and privilege of the last 150 years, there is only one conclusion. We need to break their laws and stand together in struggle - no matter what they throw at us.