Anti-strike decision is a blow to democracy


11:05 am - April 2nd 2010

by Darrell Goodliffe    


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No doubt some Labour Party members will be delighted that the High Court has granted an injunction against the RMT’s proposed rail strike on April 6th.

Cynically, they will look at the timing and feel it benefits the Party; however, such a view is short-sighted and naive. It is the view of people whose obsession with the past is blinding them to present day realities. In the long this road leads to ruin because it obscures what makes this Party a *Labour* Party.

Bob Crow may not be the most affable character and it may be true that since the RMT is not affiliated it does not have the best interests of the Party at heart. Regardless of that no union can be subservient to the electoral interests of the Labour Party (just as the Party cannot be the same to the unions) because if they are they fail in their basic duty which is to their membership not the Labour Party.

Similarly, the Labour Party must stand-up for the wider interests it represents. But what happened in the courts yesterday is a blow against us all because it’s a blow against democracy.

It should appall any democrat who believes in the basics of democracy ie, that majorities have the right to decide their destiny and that a worker has the right to withdraw their labour.

Above all it strikes a blow against another fundamental covenant at the heart of a democracy; namely, the neutral status of the law. As Brendan Barber puts it:

“It’s becoming increasingly easy for employers, unhappy at the prospect of a dispute, to rely on the courts to intervene and nullify a democratic ballot for industrial action on a mere technicality.”

If the law ceases to be neutral then the effects on democracy are corrosive. This is not about this or that industrial dispute but is increasingly about the basic tenants of democracy and the fact that courts of law are being used as a weapon against democracy in defence of vested interests.

It should be seen in the context of the totally unjustified extension of state powers under anti-terror legislation etc, etc. It should be seen as part of the malaise that currently afflicts Parliament and representative democracy.

Looked at this way what Labour’s response should be clear. In this case it must stand with the unions because their cause is the democratic one.

The cause of a full review of the anti-trade union laws is no different to that which calls for the repeal of anti-terror laws. It’s time we marched with the unions under the same democratic banner.

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About the author
Darrell Goodliffe is regular contributor and writes for several blogs including his own: Moments of Clarity.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Civil liberties ,Trade Unions

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Reader comments


t should appall any democrat who believes in the basics of democracy ie, that majorities have the right to decide their destiny

Some might argue that people who believe in democracy ought to support conducting votes in ways that aren’t ropey and crooked, which AIUI is the reason why the High Court set the RMT decision aside.

“a worker has the right to withdraw their labour.”

No, that’s not democracy, that’s freedom. An allied concept, to be sure, but not the same thing at all.

“It should appall any democrat who believes in the basics of democracy ie, that majorities have the right to decide their destiny”

Yes, but within the law. And the law is a very important bulwark against democracy. At various times and places there have been majorities in favour of hanging homos, getting rid of the Jews and killing the bourgeois.

As to the “mere technicality” from what I’ve seen in reports of tha case it wasn’t a technicality at all. There was a serious question of whether there had in fact been a majority decision.

I actually agree with Tim on this one on the technicality, though perhaps less so the sentiment (I’m not quite sure from Tim’s phrasing). The actual law being used by employers in this and many other instances is the stipulation in the 1992 Trades Union Act that when balloting it is a requirement on unions to provide employers with full details on those being ballotted, broken down by dept/workplace etc.

There is clearly anti-union bias in the formulation of the law in the late 80/s early 90s, but it is the law and therefore it is not necesarily undemocratic – though we could spend hours arguing what the term does and should mean – as such for employers to go to the courts to have it enforced.

What needs to happen is for the law to be changed because it is so clearly biased against unions (and very difficult for them to comply with). That is, this should be the left’s focus for action rather than complaints at the way this or that judge has interpreted the law.

And the law is a very important bulwark against democracy.

Good law can be. But the legislation Thatcher introduced to regulate how unions conducted ballots for strike action is fundamentally illiberal.

The law and the courts should have no say on whether a union, made up of members that have joined of their own volition and without coercion, can call a strike.

Of course closed shops and violent picket lines are illiberal too.

Many people have qualms about trade union legislation, the mis-use of anti-terrorism legislation, and passionately believe in the power of a neutrality of the law… but let’s chose the right battlefield, and at the right time!

The granting of this injunction is neither. The RMT should have been a lot more careful than it was after the annulment of the first BA strike ballot, and if they haven’t it’s no use crying about the fact that the legislation itself is anti-Union, they should have ensured their ballot was water tight: hardly rocket science surely?

“New” Labour were never likely to change Thatcherite union legislation, but pagar @5 is being disingenuous: even if illiberal trade union legislation is amended or repealed, the courts will still have a role if the processes used in calling a strike are in themselves flawed.

Remember the beer cans strike threat in February 2004?

“The threat of crippling strike action over a large section of the Tube, affecting hundreds of thousands of commuters, increased dramatically today.

“Twenty-four-hour stoppages could now take place next month in the escalating dispute over maintenance workers sacked after more than 100 empty cans of beer and cider, plus an empty bottle of brandy, were found at their Farringdon mess room.”
http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/news/article-9138741-tube-strike-threat-grows.do

That was also the RMT union.

even if illiberal trade union legislation is amended or repealed, the courts will still have a role if the processes used in calling a strike are in themselves flawed.

Sorry. I genuinely don’t follow this.

If a group of workers choose to withdraw their labour, that is a matter between them and their employer. I see no reason why this is any business of the law at all.

Why should either side need its intervention?

Paul @ 3 is probably right, its the law, not the courts, that are to blame for this (though I haven’t read the judgement). Strike ballots are an easy target because the requirements upon unions are so extreme. Response numbers are normally very low, so any result can appear absurd. (Responses of c10% of eligible voters are not unusual).

As Paul says, unions are required to provide accurate member information because of “a requirement on unions to provide employers with full details on those being ballotted, broken down by dept/workplace etc.” This is difficult in a big employer because it can change daily and the information is often controlled by the employer.

The ballot is conducted by an external scrutineer, the Electoral Reform Society, by post to members’ homes. Members have to complete a ballot paper and post it back. There is a response time and naturally some will fail despite having an opinion and some will miss the deadline.

Its intersting to consider how political parties would view similar requirements and results if they applied to parliamentary elections.

This is another example of New Labour failing to repeal illiberal anti-union laws and therefore failing part of Labour’s core constituency.

I too am confused as to how and why strikes can be stopped by legal action such as this, unless the ballot is of course an illegal one and if so, you would think that, with the BA fiasco, unions would make doubly sure that the ballot was kosher.

@8 pagar

“If a group of workers choose to withdraw their labour, that is a matter between them and their employer. I see no reason why this is any business of the law at all. ”

Because the danger is that you can’t automatically assume unions won’t be doing something fishy, any more than you can assume management will be lilly white. Like yurrzem @9 I think a lot of the legislation is flawed, but that doesn’t mean that NONE is required, or that simply saying “that is a matter between them and their employer” is enough.

Response numbers are normally very low, so any result can appear absurd. (Responses of c10% of eligible voters are not unusual).

In this case we’re looking at 54% in favour of strike on a response of 70% of 5000 members balloted, so a swing of just 140 votes would overturn the decision. Given that that we’re apparently talking about “almost 300 votes or potential votes” being involved in the “alleged discrepancies”, I’d have to say that the result in this case is not robust enough to have confidence in.

“I think a lot of the legislation is flawed, but that doesn’t mean that NONE is required, or that simply saying “that is a matter between them and their employer” is enough.”

Well, you *could* do that.

Although I have a very strong feeling that nobody would really like the outcome.

For both unions and strikers have some legal protections. The union can’t be sued for the losses caused by a strike (in the absence of their immunity they most certainly could be). Strikers can’t be fired for striking.

In return for those (and I’m sure some other) legal privileges there are some restrictions placed upon when those privileges exist. Like only in strikes where the majority of those voting have indeed voted to strike etc.

@12 Dunc

If a ballot is flawed, I have no problem with it being overturned, but by the same token if the requirement to call a strike is to have the required majority of the members vote yes, and that’s what happens then it’s fair enough.

Assuming there are no irregularities, if you need >a certain % according to the rules, and that’s what you get.. where’s the problem?

I’m completely with Tim on this, to call this “democracy” is to legitimise the type of practices that some try to call “democracy” in the middle east etc. If you’re going to ballot your members do it properly, and do it right. I think that C4 news had it spot on when they said that the RMT’s main aim here wasn’t to help it’s members but to get a strike on the cards during a general election.

And besides, let’s reiterate the point that independent analysis shows that what is intended would *not* affect safety, which calls in to validity the nature of the wish to strike…that seemingly NO avenue was taken other than the strike, which goes entirely against the point of striking to be “the last resort” rather than a blackmail action…and that other countries are proof of being able to deal with the sort of changes being proposed and not have any worse a safety record for it.

@14: Huh? I don’t understand what you’re saying there. There were numerous “alleged” irregularities in this particular ballot, sufficient to throw the result into doubt. If the margin had been sufficiently large that the “alleged” irregularities could not have altered the final result, then I’d be tempted to say that the result should stand, regardless of the technicalities. Actually, that was the result I was expecting when I started crunching the numbers. However, that turned out not to be the case.

I am not making any kind of argument about the wider issues, and I certainly have absolutely no problem with strike action following a solid ballot in favour. I’m just saying that in this particular case, there is sufficient reason to doubt the validity of the result that I would not be happy to stand behind it.

They will get a higher turnout and a more decisive decision to strike in a second ballot. That will be the outcome of misusing the law in an industrial dispute.
I presume we will be cancelling the next General Election as the voters roll is notoriously unreliable.

Tim @ 12

The union can’t be sued for the losses caused by a strike (in the absence of their immunity they most certainly could be). Strikers can’t be fired for striking.

As I said previously, I see no reason why this is any business of the law at all.

@17 pagar

Simply restating that you don’t understand why it’s any business of the law at all is pointless. Tim has pointed out two reasons – either respond to them in meaningful terms, explain what it is you don’t understand, or refrain from wasting the space.

Tim has pointed out two reasons – either respond to them in meaningful terms, explain what it is you don’t understand, or refrain from wasting the space.

Sorry if I am not explaining myself clearly enough or if I am irritating you in some way but my point is really quite simple.

Tim has noted instances where laws have been passed to regulate industrial relations. I am not discussing whether such laws are good or bad, I am arguing that such laws should not exist.

Once you accept that government has a role in passing legislation to intervene in how a civil contract of employment is drawn up you cannot then complain if they pass a law that does not suit you politically.

For example, they could legitimately make striking illegal entirely.

@ 19 pagar

That does clarify your view somewhat yes.

I don’t see why you feel that there should be no role for government in this area. I’m not discussing the minutiae of current laws, good or bad, either. You seem to believe there is some utopia where government and the judiciary have no role to play, as everything should be down to the bi-lateral realtionship between employee and employer.

I have no issue with governments “passing legislation to intervene in how a civil contract of employment is drawn up” where there is a need for them to do so, and where the legislation is clear, well drawn up, and a proportionate response to the issue.

Your last point should be dealt with by ensuring that we have constitutional protections to ensure that no such law could be enacted.

Oh, I’ve logged on to Consevative Home sorry.

“You seem to believe there is some utopia where government and the judiciary have no role to play”

Didn’t the bankers find this “utopia”? The bankers downed tools and withdrew their capital. Nothing moved in the credit markets. Governments were held to ransom by the strikers and eventually capitulated. Number of bankers prosecuted to date: nil. Number of bankers in court to get capital moving again: nil.

But get a trade union threatening to withdraw its labour and have an impact on politicians, the metropolitan media and corporate barons, and the employers are in the court with the backing of the state faster than a rat up a drainpipe.

Trebles all round!!!

@ 20

I have no issue with governments “passing legislation to intervene in how a civil contract of employment is drawn up”

Why not?

You want to employ me. I want to work for you. We agree terms.

It’s no one elses business, is it?

This same Labour party, are they supposed to represent the people who want to work too? not just the ones are fortunate to have a job yet are choosing to strike instead but the people who would love a day’s work instead of having their soul destroyed going to a job centre the past two years. Whatever the reasons for taking action, my resent towards Strike action is based on that thought. Why insult those who would love to work by striking?

@23 Tommy

The fact that unemployment is awful, doesn’t mean that nobody in emplyment should go on strike, still less that they are “insulting” the unemployed. Your point is emotional and unreasonable.

@ 22 pagar

Are you deliberately trying to be crass?

Scenario: I want to employ you. You want to work for me. We agree terms. Life is rosy.. but what happens when things go wrong?

You appear to believe in some libertarian utopia where there is never any requirement for the government or the judiciary to be involved, either in individual employer/employee relationships, or in the relationship between employers and unions.

Without even going into detail about current disputes involving the RMT/Network Rail, BA/Unison etc, etc, and irrespective of the flaws of current legislation, the idea that “It’s no one elses business” but the two parties involved is facile.

You keep asserting it, but it’s no more convincing now than it was earlier.

Tim,

Surely, the point is that the employer is in no way obliged to help the union to maintain its records – yet the union is obliged to notify the employer of all these details (something which incidentally opens the way for possible victimisation). As Yurrzem points out this is a completly unfair imposition on the unions and thus your point about ‘serious questions’ about the majority is somewhat negated.

I agree with you Paul, I wasn’t saying we should focus on this or that judge but using it to highlight the problem that exists.

Dunc, in the case of the BA/Unite dispute the first Unite ballot was clear in the size of the majority and that the ‘suspect’ ballots would have not change the actual outcome. Yet that ballot was still quashed so the law doesn’t actually discriminate and therefore is totally faulty. The point I have made above in reply to Tim furthermore makes it impossible to apply your criteria because even when the numbers dont seem worthy the system is so basically unfair that this cannot automatically mean there is not a majority in favour.

@25

but what happens when things go wrong?

Presumably you will leave to work for someone else.

You appear to believe in some libertarian utopia where there is never any requirement for the government or the judiciary to be involved, either in individual employer/employee relationships, or in the relationship between employers and unions.

Yep.

the idea that “It’s no one elses business” but the two parties involved is facile.

Why?

@27 Pagar

Riiiight, that explains it.. the expected libertairian “non-answer”: about as fatuous as the new M&S ad campagin, and about as convincing.. “just because”

Galen10 who gave you the right to judge my comment?

Let’s be honet, the RMT shot themselves in the foot here.

Yes, while NR were obviously against the strikes, the fact they got it overturned based on some rather dodgy balloting results (where RMT members at certain locations were larger than the entire work force, and in one case, votes from locations closed down in the 1960s!)

I’m not against the right to strike, but it seems to me that the RMT leadership were up to no good.


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