Sunday, 29 January 2012

The HMRC dispute and the need to defy strike laws

On Tuesday, PCS members in HM Revenue & Customs are taking strike action against privatisation plans. I've already explained the need for solidarity here, but this dispute also highlights another point that I've long made. It demonstrates the need of workers to organise in order to defy anti-strike laws.

The strike on Tuesday doesn't in fact involved all workers in HMRC, but only those in a section called Personal Tax Operations (PT Ops). In essence, this means that those not in PT Ops have to go into work on the 31 January - and if they work in a building that contains members of the striking section, as most of them do, it means that they will have to cross picket lines.

A previous anti-privatisation picket line at HMRC Euston Tower
Understandably, a great many are not happy or comfortable with this. There has been a lot of arguing internally over the matter, with many reps in the other areas saying they won't cross picket lines and with calls for the Group Executive Committee to issue guidance. The GEC happily complied with this, and provided a number of ways that those outside PT Ops could support the action. But, on the fundamental question, the union officials could only ever provide one answer: "as a union we cannot under any circumstances encourage or induce members to take part in industrial action for which they have not been balloted."

For a union to say otherwise would be suicidal. They would risk having their assets frozen and other measures that would in essence stop it functioning altogether. As such, when appealing to the union for guidance, the only thing that those outside of the balloted section were ever going to be told is to cross picket lines.

This is compounded by the fact that the choice of action by PCS has been poor at best. Previously, the dispute was challenged through short walkouts, which didn't as dramatically emphasise the non-participation of other members - and in fact allowed them to join in by taking longer lunch breaks or flexi time in solidarity with little fear of sanction. But a full day's action effectively forces the divide, which we should not be surprised at since the interests of the workers and the interests of union leaders can often be at odds.

For workers who do want to show solidarity - and, as importantly, to build a workers' movement that can seriously challenge the ruling class - something much more radical is needed. The trade unions themselves cannot and will not challenge restrictive industrial action laws. But militant workers can, and indeed should, do so.

The most basic starting point for this is to organise with your fellow workers. This doesn't mean getting them to sign a union form so they can be represented if they get in trouble, but by building an active movement within your workplace of those willing to take action - regardless of union presence or membership. For those unsure on how they might go about this, the Solidarity Federation workplace organiser training is an excellent starting point, whilst these articles on are well worth a read.

From there, what? The point of this post isn't to provide step-by-step instructions, but the easiest course of action is probably to convene off-site meetings for those affected. Talk to all the other workers, push attendance, make people interested in coming along. You can't promote unofficial action through a leaflet or casual chats, you need a meeting, and most importantly you need it to be one where everyone can have their say. If there's a debate, followed by either a consensus or a vote, people are more likely to follow through than if they're just nodding along to a speech by one person. It also brings everyone in on the act, rather than people just following the leader - which leaves said leader open to being singled out and targetted by management.

The Sparks rank-and-file group at a picket of Blackfriars in London
Of course, the one thing you absolutely must not guarantee is that nothing will happen to people. It may well, and the bosses will look for any opportunity to clamp own on such activity. But what you can say is that greater solidarity brings a greater chance of success. The prime example of this remains the Lindsey Oil Refinery dispute of 2009, where all of those (lawfully) sacked for taking wildcat strike action got their jobs back - because every other site across the country took wildcat action in support of them.

In a situation such as that PCS has forced upon HMRC workers, something like a sick-out may work better than a blatant wildcat strike. But either way, if the conversation isn't had and the topic not broached, then workers are left at the mercy of the bosses and union officialdom. Whereas if that kind of rank-and-file organisation gets off the ground, then we can reach the point that the Sparks did late last year - taking strike action even after the union capitulated to the threat of a court injunction. And we must even go beyond that, as the rank-and-file still face sell out from Unite officialdom.

We have now reached a point where the working class are literally being attacked on all fronts. An effective fight back requires a level of militancy which we have not seen here since the great unrest. But the ruling class have put in laws to prevent that whilst the union bosses are cosy enough to be complicit. In order to stand any hope of winning, we must defy both.