Britain - Trade Union Bill: they won't stop the class struggle!

Winter 2015

How many times have we heard politicians and commentators celebrating the "end of the class struggle", as if the working class had finally been cowed into agreeing to its exploitation? Of course, they can dream, if that's what they want. But whatever they may think - or want us to think - working class resistance to capitalist exploitation has never stopped - and never will stop - even if it goes through ups and downs.

Despite their arrogant rhetoric, however, the politicians of the capitalist class are always acutely aware of the threat that a resurgence of working class militancy would mean for the social interests they represent. This is what, in its own way, the government's latest Trade Union Bill illustrates. Indeed, the fact that despite the low level of industrial action since the beginning of the crisis, Cameron feels the need to tighten up existing anti-strike legislation and put further restrictions on the right of workers to organise, only highlights his fear that at some point, a new wave of militancy could derail the capitalists' on-going attacks against the working class and jeopardise its profiteering.

In true Thatcherite tradition, all this is done, according to business secretary Sajid Javid, in order to strike a "fair balance" between the unions and the "public". As if this mythical "public" was not overwhelmingly made of workers, who either belong to a union or, at least, rely on the unions to defend their material interests and, in any case, are faced with much the same attacks as those workers who might be taking industrial action. As to Javid's claim at last September's Manchester Tory conference that "for too long, trade unions have been able to bully working people by striking", it stupidly ignores the fact that it's not "the unions" which take strike action, but flesh and blood workers, usually after much difficulty, thanks to the long and complex official procedure and postal ballot system.

Then, of course, there is this other myth that strikes are to be blamed on the "ideologically motivated". This was, for instance, Boris Johnson's only response to the London Underground workers' strike, in July, when he accused them of having gone ahead "pig-headedly" with this strike because they "didn't get the outcome they wanted at the general election"! Never mind the fact that the striking workers had every reason to be angry over his plans to introduce a 24-hour service on the Underground, without any compensation, whether in terms of time in lieu, or pay!

"Democratic" ballot thresholds?

At the time of writing, the government is stilll hoping to turn this Trade Union Bill into law by January next year and it has just concluded its third reading in the Commons. So, what is its actual content?

A first section deals with anti-strike provisions: a strike will be "illegal" unless 50% of the concerned union members have turned out to vote. Given the hurdles already attached to running postal strike ballots, the only legal form since the 1990s, a 50% turnout is quite a tall order in many cases. This is especially true when the workforce concerned is not concentrated in one, or just a few, workplaces, or when, as is the case in many unions, the leadership has got into the habit of using strike ballots as mere bargaining chips, regardless of what workers may really want to do. But the biggest obstacle of all is certainly the fact that no attempt is ever made to encourage members to take an active part in the life of the union, whether on the shop or office floor, or in the local branches - when they are not actively discouraged from doing so.

The Bill goes one step further, in order to pre-empt strikes in the public sector industries, which are better organised and which have been particularly affected by the governments' half-a-million job cuts and real wage freeze since 2010. In these industries, the Bill adds another constraint for strike ballots to be deemed "legal": the requirement for strike action to be endorsed by at least 40% of all registered members, independently from the turnout level. This would affect what the government calls "important services", such as the fire service, health, education, transport, the Border Agency and nuclear decommissioning services. Javid's department worked out that this double threshold would have prevented 65% of the stoppages that took place as a result of a sample of 78 disputes in these "important services" since 2010. And, despite the fact that the rate of unionisation is relatively high in most of these industries, this may well be true - because of the scattered nature of their workforces.

However, the Bill's definition of "important services" is ambiguous enough to be open to interpretation. Any company could potentially take its chances and seek a court injunction against a ballot which hasn't achieved this 40% threshold in favour of strike action, on the grounds that its activity is an "important service".

Ironically all this is justified by the "benefit" gained in reducing the number of days "lost" in strike action which may "seriously impair economic activity", according to the government. But who is to blame? The bosses who pay inadequate wages and try to screw workers' conditions and cut their jobs, or the workers who try to defend themselves against these attacks? As to the days which are constantly "lost" as a result of unemployment or under-employment, they do not even deserve a mention, never mind that they also "seriously impair economic activity" by cutting the purchasing power of the working class majority of the population!

Even more ironical is the fact that such thresholds should be imposed on strike ballots in the name of "democracy" by a government which was elected by only 24.3% of all registered voters! But there's nothing surprising there, of course. It is a well-established fact that there are two laws in this society - one for the ruling capitalist class, which is designed to protect its domination over the economy, and one for the working class, which is designed to enforce its exploitation by the capitalists.

Strike-breaking legalised, picketing criminalised

In addition to its ballot thresholds, the Bill includes other important restrictions to the right to strike. In particular, it reverses a 47-year old ban on employers recruiting agency workers to replace strikers. Not that bosses always observed this law , of course. In non-skilled industries, in particular, where workers do not have a fixed job they could claim that agency workers would have been hired regardless of any strike - not to mention the growing number of companies which employ a large proportion of agency workers, or even a majority, who can be more easily blackmailed into crossing picket lines.

But, of course, the fact that the bosses will now have a legal right to replace strikers with agency workers will make a difference. Especially as the notice that needs to be given to employers before any strike action, will be increased to 14 days - from the current 7 - which gives them plenty of time to make the necessary arrangements.

The use of agency workers to break strikes does not only affect the striking union members - who are more likely than not to be on permanent contracts. It also affects agency workers, who will be blackmailed by their agencies into breaking strikes, under threat of not being offered any job in the future. Few of them would willingly cross a picket line if they had another option, but what else can they do?

This is where the big gap created by the bosses between permanent and casual workers, over the past two decades, comes into play. But the union machineries also have a responsibility in the creation of this gap - first because of their failure to oppose the rise of casualisation and then, once it had become generalised, because of their failure to seriously attempt to organise casual workers, or even take an interest in their problems. Today, however, at a time when the proportion of casual workers is roughly a third of the total workforce, the working class just cannot afford to allow the union machineries' contemptuous attitude towards these workers to split its ranks. It if comes into force, this provision of the Bill will make it even more vital for workers to by-pass the union leaders' sectionalism in order to weld the ranks of casuals and permanents into one solid block against the bosses!

The Bill also includes tentative provisions which could result in the criminalisation of "illegal" picketing and protests. To be sure, this is is not exactly new, as this actually happened extensively during the 1984-85 miners' strike. All it takes, according to the law as it stands, is a court injunction. In other words, the Bill would facilitate the task of the bosses and police in this respect, but would not fundamentally change the situation. It would just mean that for workers to hold the bosses, the courts and the police at bay, would, more than ever, be a matter of balance of forces.

The union leaders' worries

However, it is not so much the limitations put on the right to strike which worry the TUC leaders, with the exception, maybe, of the heavy fines they would face should they fail to get their members to abide by the 14-day notice required for any industrial action, or by the new restrictions concerning picketing. Other than that, as history shows, the union leaders can quite happily live with such constraints against the right to strike.

What worries them most is the rest of the Bill. For instance, another of its provisions would give the Certification Officer (the unions' "regulator") full access to their membership lists. The TUC condemned this as "an intrusion on union members' privacy" - as if this was just another addition to Theresa May's forthcoming "Snooping Charter"!

But although May's draft Bill caused a storm in the media, this "intrusion on union members' privacy" has very different implications: it is not just an "intrusion on privacy", but another weapon for the bosses in their class war against the working class. It gives the state the right to oversee the way in which workers organise themselves  - as if this was some sort of criminal activity. And if the state is given such oversight, so are the capitalists whose interests it represents.

In practice, what will guarantee that these lists aren't "leaked" - and union members aren't sacked and blacklisted as a result, especially those considered "too militant"? Couldn't this result in the legalisation - or, in any case, the multiplication - of the kind of private, shady agencies which illegally sell lists of activists to employers - from the old "Economic League" which was eventually disbanded in 1993, after over 70 years of existence, to the more recent "Consulting Association", which kept files on over 3,000 union members in the construction industry, with the help of the Home Office's "National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit"?

Moreover, knowing that their names could end up on such a list, wouldn't more workers think twice before joining a union? At a time when union membership has been seriously reduced by the crisis, due to job cuts and rising casualisation, this is a reason for the union machineries to be worried.

But it is not the only reason. The Bill would also give the Certification Officer extensive powers to investigate unions' internal operation and accounts. What's more - and this is rather cynical on the part of the government - union machineries would have to pay what is likely to be a hefty bill towards the regulator's operating costs.

But it is probably the provisions concerning the public sector which are most worrying for the union machineries. For instance, the Bill would allow the government to cap the overall facility time paid to union officials, regardless of the national agreements signed with public sector organisations - which could result in a big fall in the number of full-time officials on which the public sector union machineries rely for their operation. Another cause of worryis the provision which would end the check-off system across the public sector - which is most likely to result in a drop in membership and, therefore, in income for the public sector unions.

That the TUC leadership is more concerned by these aspects of the Bill than by its attacks on workers' rights was illustrated by TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady's response to it. Having denounced it as "the biggest attack in thirty years" - which it certainly is - she went on to argue that the Bill was an attack "not just against trade unions, but against our best chance of raising productivity, pay and demand" - thereby intimating that, somehow, workers and companies were in the same boat. Finally she complained that since the level of industrial action "has fallen dramatically over the last 30 years", the Bill was totally "unnecessary"! But that was about it.

From Labour's "In place of strife"...

To be sure, the British state has a long record of trying to curb the right to strike - and workers' rights in general - just as the union machineries have a poor record of confronting these attempts, when they do not go unreservedly along with the capitalists' demand that they should police the ranks of the working class.

Without going back too far into the past, this is well-illustrated by what took place under Harold Wilson's second Labour government, following his re-election, in 1966.

Having sworn during his election campaign that "a wage freeze, if by that you mean a law to hold back wage increases, that would be unthinkable", Wilson immediately embarked on an "income crusade" aimed at putting "an end to bloody-mindedness on both sides of industry", while castigating the unions' so-called "restrictive practices" -  rhetoric strikingly similar to the attacks by current politicians on the unions' "vested interests". While subsidising big companies, Wilson then introduced a 3.5% cap on wage increases, thereby freezing real wages.

In May 1966, a seamen's strike was the first big challenge to Wilson's incomes policy. Again using rhetoric reminiscent of what we hear today, Wilson denounced the strike as being instigated by a "tightly knit group of politically motivated men" who were "forcing great hardships on the members of the unions and their families." A state of emergency was declared and the seamen's union leaders backed down.

But this was only the first of a long series of unofficial strikes, which developed as Wilson introduced more austerity packages - with, among them, the 9-week strike which closed down the docks in Liverpool and London, from October 1967.

Wilson's government was confronted with two problems. Firstly, most of these strikes were unofficial, so that the union machineries had little control over them. They were led by a generation of young workers who had joined the labour market during the industrial expansion of the early 1960s at a time when unemployment was low - and this gave them enough confidence to refuse to be trampled over. And secondly, the union machineries were still relatively unpopular among workers, due to their policy of "partnership" with governments ever since WWII. Being unable to offer an outlet to the workers' discontent, union leaders were also unable to contain their militancy.

To resolve these problems, Wilson set up the Donovan commission to look into the "the unions' restrictive practices." Eventually, the commission's proposals formed the basis of a White paper entitled "In Place of Strife", released in January 1969 by the then Employment minister, Barbara Castle.

In order to take disputes out of the hands of local activists, this White paper provided for centralised collective bargaining in "an effective and orderly method of regulation", under the supervision of an Industrial Relations Commission. As a sop to the union machineries, it made union recognition virtually compulsory and gave union officials more protection against dismissal. In return, however, the union machineries' internal operation was to be placed under legal scrutiny, with "independent" auditors overseeing their finances, while the courts were to become the ultimate arbitrator in all conflicts between them and individual workers. But "In Place of Strife" went further than that, by significantly restricting workers' right to strike. It gave the government powers to suspend any threat of strike action by ordering a 28-day "cooling off" period as well as the organisation of a postal ballot. More importantly, it made unofficial strikes illegal and the workers involved in such strikes were to be liable for damages.

In the end, the TUC felt it could not "sell" this Bill to the membership. In June 1969, its General Council made a solemn undertaking to take any action required to stem the wave of unofficial strikes. In exchange, the government decided that further consultation would be held on the subject and the Bill was postponed. But it did pave the way for future anti-strike laws. the Tories' Industrial Relations Act

The wave of unrest in the second half of the 60s didn't slow down. Labour's discredit was such that when Wilson called a new election, in 1970, millions of workers abstained, resulting in the lowest turnout since WWII, and the Tories got in, after having pledged to control wages and industrial action.

However, Edward Heath's Tory government, proved unable to clamp down on workers' militancy. Faced with the first cracks of what was soon to become a world economic crisis, Heath resumed Wilson's attempts at curbing the workers' resistance with an Industrial Relations Act - in fact, a watered down version of Wilson's "In Place of Strife".

In order to have any legal right, unions were to be registered and to subject themselves to the scrutiny of the state. In return, workers were given the statutory right to belong to a registered union. All collective agreements were to be legally enforceable, unless specific clauses provided for some other arbitration mechanism. But the Act also attacked workers' right to strike: it legalised "no-strike" clauses in collective agreements, banned unofficial strikes and created a National Industrial Relations Court which could grant injunctions against strikes when requested by employers and impose jail sentences on workers who defied its injunctions.

However, Heath's attempt backfired. In January 1972, the miners went on strike, followed by the dockers. In the summer of 1972, the National Industrial Relations Court issued an injunction against the East London dockers who were "unlawfully" picketing the premises of the Midland Cold Storage Company. When five shop stewards were jailed in Pentonville prison for failing to comply with this injunction, the growing discontent came to a head in the form of a wave of unofficial strikes across the country.

This time, after two years of sitting on its hands, the TUC felt it had no option but to endorse this rising wave of militancy in order to regain control. By calling an official national strike on July 31st, it forced the government to back down and release the Pentonville Five. On the strength of this victory and despite the TUC's attempts to harness it, industrial unrest carried on well into the following year, with 2 million workers on strike for Mayday 1973. Then, in the autumn, the miners' union, the NUM, responded to the government offer of a 13% wage increase with a 40% claim. By December, 280,000 miners embarked on an overtime ban. By January 1974, the situation reached a crisis point with the overtime ban extended to engineering and a work-to-rule among train drivers. In so far as there was no question of an actual strike at this stage, the TUC leaders had endorsed these actions, so as to remain in the driving seat. However, in February, 81% of the miners voted for strike action. There was not much the TUC could do about it and Heath was left with no option but to call a snap election over the issue of "who was to govern Britain" - the government, or the unions.

From Labour's "Social Contract"...

CBI director general, Campbell Adamson, didn't mince its words after Heath's failure: "I should like to see the next government repeal the Act so that we can get proper agreement on what should replace it." And this was precisely what Labour campaigned for in the run up to the 1974 elections - its ability to restore social peace.

In the general election, Wilson squeezed back into office, with a minority government. The Industrial Relations Act was repealed, the miners' dispute settled and the TUC was called in to help. Its leaders declared that there was to be no free-for-all and they recommended that Heath's 13% ceiling on pay rises should be retained until the summer.

Against the backdrop of a worldwide economic crisis, a "new social consensus" was heralded, with the joint Labour-TUC "Social Contract". This "historical" agreement stated that: "Only practical action by the Government to create a much fairer distribution of national wealth can convince the worker, his family and his trade union, that an 'incomes policy' is not some kind of trick to force him... to bear the brunt of the national burden."

However, this "Social Contract" did turn out to be a "trick to force workers to bear the brunt of the national burden": wage restraint remained more than ever on the agenda, despite annual inflation being in double figures most of the time, even reaching 25% at one point!

The TUC was fully behind this policy which, although not binding on union leaders, relied on their voluntary cooperation. And co-operate, they certainly did! They were all the more willing to do so as Wilson rewarded them with all kinds of positions in government bodies such as the National Economic Development Council, ACAS - his new arbitration service - or the various committees of his new "Plan for Coal'. To ensure that they would have even more reasons to support these policies, the union machineries were offered new advantages by many public and private employers, such as closed shop and check-off systems - all of which made them less receptive to rank-and-file pressure.

While Wilson was bailing out private companies on state funds - like Chrysler's British subsidiary which was awarded a £162m subsidy despite sacking 8,300 workers, or one-third of its workforce - he was introducing cuts to fund his largesse to the bosses and, with the TUC's help, he was blackmailing whole sections of workers in the nationalised industries into agreeing to wage cuts, again, allegedly to avoid massive job cuts.

... to the "Winter of Discontent"

In April 1976, Wilson resigned and was replaced by Callaghan. By the end of that year, thanks to the TUC's support, Labour had managed to cut real wages by 11% compared to 1974. Discontent was growing, however. In the first two months of 1977 alone, official statistics recorded one million strike days by 200,000 workers. The TUC had agreed a 10% cap on wage increases with Callaghan and was putting all its weight into policing it. As a result, most strikes were, once again, unofficial. But the increasingly hard line attitude of the courts and Callaghan's strong-arm tactics against strikers - especially after he declared a state of emergency and brought in the army against a firemen's strike - made it increasingly difficult for union leaders to be seen supporting the government's attacks.

So, in 1978, when Callaghan announced a 3% cap on wage increases, at a time when inflation was officially running at 7%, the TUC leaders tried to regain some of the credit they had lost by making a show of challenging Callaghan, eventually presenting an increase of the wage cap to 5% as a major "victory".

But this was too little, too late. By September the 5% cap collapsed after 60,000 Ford workers took unofficial strike action in support of a £20/wk increase. The TUC leaders felt they could not oppose this strike without completely discrediting themselves and they made it official. Eventually the Ford strikers won a 17% increase in pay and premiums, after a nine-week strike.

This was to be the starting point of the "Winter of Discontent", the largest strike wave since the 1926 General Strike. The wave of unofficial strikes was kicked off by lorry and oil tankers drivers, soon followed by train drivers and the big battalions of public sector workers. Worried that they might get out of hand, the union leaders eventually made the strikes official. Their intervention effectively disorganised the strikers by preventing them from co-ordinating their action. But it did not prevent them from winning an average 7% increase in real pay.

Having eventually brought the strike wave to an end, the TUC tried to help Callaghan to patch up his incomes policy by signing up to a so-called "Concordat", which included a 5% cap on pay increases, a "code of conduct" for strikes, voluntary limitations on picketing and even a commitment to hold up industrial action against companies experiencing difficulties - in other words, a revamped version of Heath's Industrial Relations Act, willingly endorsed by the TUC!

Thatcher goes on the offensive

During the "Winter of Discontent", the union machineries had failed to prevent the workers' discontent from breaking into a mighty demonstration of militancy. But they had saved the capitalists a lot of trouble by ensuring that each section of strikers remained isolated from the others, thereby preventing workers from making the best of their collective strength. However, the capitalist class was not to prove very grateful to the union leaders, despite their good services.

By the time of the 1979 general election, world trade had slowed down and Britain's ageing, under-invested industry was facing deep problems. Thatcher's victory in this election coincided with a change in what the capitalists expected from their state. While shying away from investing in the productive sphere, they wanted the state to provide them with new, ready-made sources of profits: every profitable slice of the public sector was to be privatised and, to this end, labour costs - and jobs - were to be massively reduced. This required curbing workers' resistance.

However, the measures that Thatcher and her successor, John Major, took in this respect, were hardly new. Many just formalised what had already been informally implemented in the past by Labour, with the TUC's backing. In fact, they did not even go as far as Wilson's "In Place of Strife" would have gone, had it been implemented. Where Thatcher differed in her approach from the previous Labour governments, was only in the fact that she never sought an explicit agreement with the union leaders - at least not publicly.

But, contrary to a common myth, she didn't really seek to undermine or discredit them - after all, they could still play a useful role in policing the working class! Thatcher's real target was the working class itself. If she presented some of her measures as being designed to "curb the unions' power" - mostly for the benefit of the right-wingers in her own party - they were primarily aimed at undermining the self-confidence of the working class by destroying the prevailing illusion that a "strong" trade-union movement would always protect workers against any attack. At the same time, she cracked down on picketing, solidarity action and unofficial strikes, which had been the main vehicles of working class militancy over the previous two decades.

Both solidarity action and unofficial strikes proved difficult to curb. Two years into her first term, Thatcher failed to prevent unofficial walkouts from developing into an all-out strike at British Steel. So her 1982 Employment Act banned solidarity action, while making the union machineries liable for damages in the case of illegal strikes. However, implementing this legislation was a question of balance of forces as the miners showed, in 1984, when illegal solidarity action and flying pickets brought the coal pits to a standstill across the country. And the introduction of compulsory secret strike ballots, shortly after the beginning of the strike, did not stop the miners from defying the law. Nor did it force them back to work - at least not before the following year.

With regard to pickets, there was not all that much Thatcher could do either, despite the legislation introduced as early as 1980 in order to curb picketing. Of course, pickets could be charged with obstruction or threatening behaviour by the police and massive policing could be used against them. But, ultimately, it was also a matter of balance of forces and, seven years into Thatcher's rule, in 1986, no amount of policing managed to stop the year-long illegal mass picketing of Murdoch's printing plant, in Wapping.

In fact, it took until 1992 for the Tories to consider that the level of militancy had subsided enough for them to risk introducing the present stringent restrictions on the right to strike, including postal strike ballots and all the legal hoop-jumping they involve - which is what Cameron now wants to complicate even further.

The union machineries and the anti-strike laws

The fact that Thatcher did not want to be seen negotiating with union leaders didn't mean that she didn't take into account their concerns, interests and wishes. There is plenty of evidence that she wanted to avoid a head-on confrontation with the TUC. For example, she made a point of stopping a Tory backbencher from introducing a measure which would have required union members to "opt in" individually to their union's political fund - probably because she didn't want to create major headaches for union leaders in their efforts to raise funds for Labour. Moreover she continued Labour's past policy of providing trade union officials with positions in state institutions, offering them, for instance, hundreds of full-time jobs in bodies such as the Manpower Services Commission or the 54 area boards in charge of operating her new Youth Training Schemes.

In return, the TUC leaders caved in, in front of the potential threat to their assets, should they fall on the wrong side of the law. Not only did they stop short of trying to organise any effective response to Thatcher's attacks against the right to strike, but they joined the politicians' and media furore in condemning the so-called "violence" of the strikers, both during the steel and miners' strike - and, in fact, during every subsequent militant strike during the course of the 1980s.

For workers, of course, the successive employment acts introduced from 1980 onwards resulted in a gradual erosion of their rights - from their right to take industrial action, to whatever protection they had against redundancies and unfair dismissal, for instance. And the bosses were quick to take advantage of the changes in legislation, by turning the screw on unruly, militant workers.

The union machineries were not as much affected as their members, though. The laws allowing the courts to sequestrate union funds were hardly ever used - only three times, in fact - and those making union leaders liable for damages caused by unofficial or illegal strikes, never. Moreover, Thatcher's threat to terminate the check-off system in the public sector was never carried out. It is only today, 36 years later, that Cameron includes this threat in his Trade-Union Bill - except that, at a time when direct debit arrangements have become so common, the check-off is no longer as vital as it used to be for the union machineries. Meanwhile, the partnership between the union machineries, the bosses and the state remained as close as ever, even if it took forms which were different from those of the 1960s-70s.

While the union machineries didn't suffer much from the anti-strike legislation, they extensively used it to control the membership. The "legal obligation" of organising postal strike ballots - something that only the union apparatus can do - has been systematically used to deprive members on the ground of any initiative. At the same time, by invoking the potential threat that this legislation represents for them and calling on members to "Defend your union", union leaders keep using it to cover up their own reluctance to organise any fight back against the bosses' and government's attacks.

A question of balance of forces

During all these years of hiding behind the anti-strike laws, the union machineries have been doing their best to discredit industrial action as an effective weapon for workers to defend their material interests and to dismiss working class solidarity as a thing of the past. This suited, very well, their own sectional outlook and their fear that the working class might, at some stage, come to realise the extent of its collective strength and its ability to rock the boat of the profit system.

No wonder the TUC's response to Cameron's Trade-Union Bill has been remarkably muted - regardless, even, of the practical consequences it may have for the union machineries. So far, only symbolic protests have been organised - a march at the Tory party conference in October and a rally outside Parliament during the Bill's third reading. But that is about it. There is no question of calling on workers to mobilise against this Bill except in the form of... a letter to their MPs!

In fact, union leaders have been making spineless overtures to Cameron. The TUC did so implicitly by complaining that the Bill did not include any provisions for "electronic voting". Unite was more explicit in a September submission to the government, which said, for instance: "Unite is prepared to sit down with the Government and discuss secure workplace ballots... If the Government and Unite can agree to secure workplace balloting then the argument about thresholds would have less significance for Unite" - by "secure workplace balloting", was meant the use of electronic and online voting. The following month, in a letter to Cameron leaked by the Observer, Unite's "left-wing" leader, Len McCluskey went even further: "Were you to be able to accept this modern and democratic proposal to update balloting procedures then Unite, for its part, would be comfortable about accepting the thresholds and the time limit on the validity of ballots proposed in the trade union bill, without prejudice to our position on other elements of the legislation."

So, yes, the union leadership can live - and is willing to live - with most of the provisions of this Trade Union Bill, just as they've done with other similar legislation in the past.

As for the working class, it will be just another obstacle to its ability to use its collective strength - but not much more than that. After all, the working class movement was built over many decades by workers who had no right to be organised and faced the rigour of the law every time they went on strike - because striking was illegal. In fact, no gain would have ever been achieved by the working class in the past without breaking laws which were written by and for their capitalist exploiters.

Ultimately, whether the laws of the bosses are enforced depends on whether workers allow them to be enforceable - it is a question of balance of forces. As the experience of the past four decades shows, it was the militancy of the working class which pushed aside the legal obstacles that the bosses were putting to its fights. The union leaders were never of much help in this respect - due to their conservatism and determination to preserve their partnerships with the bosses. But time and again, workers found a way to by-pass the straitjacket imposed on their collective strength by the union machineries. And they will find it again, at one point or another. The Camerons of this world won't bury the class struggle - rather it is the class struggle that will bury them.

16 November 2015