The Tories want to make it harder for trade unionists to go out on strike and this week we have a prime example of why such attacks on union rights would be harmful. After two 24-hour Tube strikes in July and August over staff rotas and working conditions London Underground has delayed the introduction of the Night Tube.
Without this vital union action London Underground would have forced staff to work obscenely long hours with rotas that would have destroyed employee’s work-life balance. It is this success of trade unions that the government want to quash which perfectly illustrates who this government is fighting for: big business and management.
With the inception of the Night Tube delayed the RMT, the TSSA, Unite and ASLEF have succeeded in stopping the degradation of staff’s working conditions and have shown to the wider public that trade unions can work for their members’ best interests even up against a Tory-led management. Not only has the unions’ recent industrial action prompted the delay, but their negotiating position has been strengthened even further as the RMT have already set two provisional strike dates on 8th and 10th September which can only be called off if an acceptable deal is struck.
The unions have London Underground over a barrel and they will have to compromise with the unions; even the business group London First has said that “if it gives London Underground and unions time to come up with a long term deal it will be worth it.” But there is another aspect that isn’t spoken about regarding the Night Tube’s implementation: the Mayor’s political ambitions. Boris Johnson is eager to be personally associated with the Night Tube and to have it brought in before the next mayoral election as its implementation would give him political capital in any future leadership bid. The continued union action against London Underground would push the implementation of the Night Tube back until after the mayoral election next year unless management sat down with the unions. The unions can therefore use the threat of future strikes and this political fact as leverage to change rotas and the schedules of workers.
It is this type of situation that the Tories want to avoid in future as since the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 the Conservative Party has had an obsession with restricting the rights of trade unions. The success of trade unions angers Conservative politicians, who unlike their centre-right colleagues on the Continent, refuse to acknowledge the importance of trade unions in a modern society; this hostility has culminated in the Tories planning to introduce legislation to further limit trade union activities. The proposed Trade Union Bill would impose a minimum 50% turnout with public sector strikes also requiring the backing of 40% of those eligible to vote; considering that this Tory majority government was elected on 37% of the vote (if we discount the millions of people who didn’t vote) this cannot be seen as anything other than rank hypocrisy.
The bill would also cut the amount of money unions will have available to mount campaigns or support political parties by requiring people to ‘opt in’ rather than ‘opt out’ as is currently the case. The most radical part of the bill, as if this wasn’t radical enough, is that it would force trade unions to provide employers with 14 days notice of strike actions so the employer would be able to get agency staff to cover the striking workers’ shifts. The point of strike action is to cause disruption so management are encouraged to come to the negotiating table to prevent further disruption; giving employers time to get agency staff would effectively remove the impact of any strike action thus making strikes ineffective and essentially removing the ability of workers to collectively bargain.
The prolonged dispute over the Night Tube has caused repeated strikes but forced London Underground to come to the negotiating table and thus given unions leverage to prevent the planned degradation of working conditions. Under the Trade Union Bill proposed by the government such leverage wouldn’t have been acquired by the unions and Tube workers would have had their rotas transformed for the worse. This Tory bill would render the trade unions almost unable to strike and would cut the funding of the Conservative Party’s biggest political opponent; the future of workers’ rights hangs in the balance which is why this bill must be defeated.