No to Austerity: No to Tory Anti-Union Laws

6 July 2015
Over a quarter of a million people joined the People's Assembly 'End Austerity Now' demonstrations in London and Glasgow on 20 June

Over a quarter of a million people joined the People’s Assembly ‘End Austerity Now’ demonstrations in London and Glasgow on 20 June

The Tory government want to push through a further £12 billion cuts package. To do this they are determined to weaken one of the biggest challenges to these plans – the trade union movement.


In the last few months we have seen workers in the private and public sector vote for strikes. Tata steel workers voted overwhelmingly to strike in defence of their pension’s schemes – that made the employers blink first and withdrew their proposals.

Network Rail workers similarly voted decisively in their ballot over pay forcing their employers to make a significantly revised offer. In the public sector Dundee hospital porters took on their employers over low pay with a 13-week all-out strike – and won.

On 8 June, a number of unions, involved in different disputes, are lined up to coordinate their action by striking on the same day. London Underground workers voted to strike by 91 percent to strike on a 60 percent turnout over new work rosters. They are to be joined by the National Gallery workers in dispute over privatisation and victimisation, while Barnet and Bromley Council workers who are striking too on the day are in dispute over privatisation.

Across the Further Education sector UCU members in 12 colleges across London have taken coordinated action to defend jobs. Half so far have succeeded in stopping compulsory redundancies.

It is this kind of strike action, coordinated locally and nationally, that the employers and their Tory friends fear most. It is for this reason that the Queen’s speech last month announced further legislation to shackle trade unions.

The proposals in the new bill will include new ballot thresholds of 50 percent turnout and 40 percent of all those eligible to vote ‘yes’ for workers in essential services before unions are allowed to take strike action. Of course the Tories’ hypocrisy knows no bounds; if these criteria were applied to the election of MPs then 270 of the Tories who now sit in the House of Commons would not have been elected.

The bill also includes making it legal for employers to use agency workers to do the work of those who are participating in strikes and introducing new picketing laws making illegal picketing a criminal offence.

If it is passed then it will make it even more difficult for trade unions to take legal strike action.  The defeat of this bill is one of the most urgent tasks that confront not just the trade union movement but the anti-austerity movement as a whole. The Tories understand only too well that the key to implementing their austerity agenda lies in being able to get workers to work longer for less.

The employers and the Tories know that they must weaken workplace resistance if they are going to succeed in achieving this. This is why we need to build a campaign to stop this bill and prepare the ground to defy it if it becomes law.

A history of anti-union legislation

Employers’ and government attempts to weaken trade union power is nothing new. Throughout the history of the trade union movement, numerous attempts have been made to straight-jacket unions through legislation. One of the first was the Taff Vale case. This was a law passed in 1901 which made unions liable for the profits to the employers that were lost due to strike action. The rail workers were a powerful group of workers. The Taff Vale rail workers moved a quarter of the eighteen million tons of coal dug by South Wales miners.

After the law was passed outrage spread right across the working class movement. It was the Taff Vale law that provided the impetus to set up the Labour Representation Committee which in turn led to the birth of the Labour Party. The Taff Vale act was reversed in 1906.

Fast forward to 1969 and another major attack on trade union rights came as the post war economic boom came to an end. Harold Wilson’s Labour government attempted to introduce new anti–union legislation. In place of strife was devised by the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, Barbara Castle.

In place of strife was a response to the Donavan Report (1968), the Labour Government’s Royal Commission into trade unions and industrial relations in Britain. The report looked into the rise of a new militancy that swept across different sectors in the 1960s. Castle’s proposals went a lot further than the report’s recommendations. The new anti-union bill contained cooling off periods and secret ballots to be held before any strike action could take place.

The trade union movement responded magnificently. Through an organisation called the Liaison for the Defence of Trade Unions (LDCTU), workers struck unofficially to defeat the bill in 1969.  The biggest strike was on Mayday of that year when 250,000 struck against the bill. They succeeded and it never made the statute books.

Just one year later the Heath government took up the cudgel’s against the trade union movement by attempting to introduce the Industrial Relations Act (1970). Again this attempt to weaken the unions failed. The Heath government was rocked by a series of strikes. In 1970 LCDTU organised an unofficial strike involving 600,000 against the Heath’s Industrial Relations act.  Throughout the period of this government over 200 occupations of factories, offices and shipyards took place. It was the three miners’ strikes, two in 1972 and one in 1974, that dealt the final blow to the Heath government. This wave of industrial action forced the Tory government to introduce a three day working week and to call a general election. Heath ran his election campaign on the slogan. ‘Who runs the country, the unions or the government?’  He got his answer – Heath lost.

In the 1980s the employers launched another new offensive against the working class. Margaret Thatcher’s election gave them the leadership they needed to pursue their agenda to make British capitalism competitive internationally.  The Tories were successful in bringing in new anti-union legislation, driven by their need to revenge the humiliation they had suffered at the hands of the miners in 1974.

Between 1980 and 1989 six major anti-union laws were passed. All the central planks to making British trade union laws the most restrictive in the western world were put in place.  These included the need for a secret ballot before taking strike action, making secondary action illegal (ie workers taking strike action in support of other groups of workers), a code of practice (restricting the amount of pickets to six), restrictions on industrial action through redefining what a trade dispute was, and giving the employers the right to obtain injunctions against unions and sue them for damages.

Hatfield Main Colliery banner on the Pride march in June this year

Hatfield Main Colliery banner on the Pride march in June this year

The backdrop was significant industrial unrest. The steelworkers in 1980, the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-5, and the print workers’ battles against Eddie Shah and Rupert Murdoch – all were defeated giving Thatcher and the employers continued confidence to attack the conditions of the working class.

The defeats were unnecessary and not inevitable.


The failure of the trade union leadership to mobilise the whole of the trade union movement allowed these strikes to go down to defeat.

The introduction of the trade union laws made the leaderships of the trade unions even more cautious. Fear of their union’s funds being sequestrated gave them a reason to prevent industrial action to protect their members’ wages and conditions. For many of the trade union leaders the new laws were not all bad. Some of them welcomed parts of the new legislation that gave them more control over rank and file members.  No longer could ‘bully boy’ shop stewards set up car park meetings and frighten their members into voting for immediate walk outs, as they saw it.

Secret ballots allowed the more passive union members, those not actively engaged with union activity and therefore more likely to be susceptible to media anti-union propaganda, to dictate the pace and response of the union to government and employer-led attacks.

Today the scale of the new Tory anti-union laws reflects the scale of the attacks the Tory Government want to unleash on every workplace and community.

We cannot allow some of the trade union leaders’ fear of ‘losing control’ and their pessimism of our ability to defeat the Tory agenda get in the way of protecting the working class’s main bastion of defence – its trade unions.

Building a mass campaign to stop the Tory anti-union offensive.

There is a real possibility of building a mass dynamic campaign that can stop the new anti-union offensive. Only two weeks ago 250,000 people marched against austerity. We need to make the campaign to stop the anti-union laws central to the anti-austerity movement’s aims.

A trade union rights campaign linked to the new young dynamic anti-austerity movement can introduce a new layer of younger workers into the trade union movement bringing with them their audaciousness and creativity.

Unite the Resistance (UtR) have organised two successful forums in London and Manchester to raise awareness of the new anti-union laws (watch the video of the London forum here). Local trade councils working with UtR supporters should organise similar meetings in every area.

There will be a number of opportunities to promote the campaign to defend trade union rights in the coming months. These Include the TUC day of action on the second reading of the bill as well as the TUC-backed demonstration on the 4 October outside the Tory Party Conference.

If we are successful in building the anti-austerity movement and at the same time promoting the campaign for trade union rights then the trade union movement will be in a position to take the action we need to defy the anti-union laws if the Tories force through this legislation with their 12 seat majority.

Len McCluskey, the Unite General Secretary, before the general election argued that UNITE is prepared to remove the words “so far as may be lawful” from its rule book in preparation to break the law if the bill is passed. Others must follow suite. A lot has been said about the decline of trade union membership and it is true we need to recruit more members and encourage their active involvement. Nevertheless, there are still six and half million people in trade unions, over a quarter of the working population. Trade unions are, by far, the largest voluntary organisation in Britain. This is a good critical mass to start to build a mass movement to stop Tory austerity and defend our unions.

Sean Vernell

Unite the Resistance joint national secretary

1 comment

  1. Mr Joey Moore said:

    Up the workers. I am so tired of constant attacks from the Tory party on the fundamental rights of all employees. We’re the people who make the profits.We’re the people who do the jobs others won’t.Cameron and his like are the vilest sub human immoral scum to surface in this country in a long time. Bastards

    8 September 2015 at 8:18am

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