Us on the Left were totally obsessed with the Labour leadership campaign and potential election of Jeremy Corbyn, but since his election the conversation has shifted to how the Left can work actively to oppose the upcoming Trade Union Bill that passed its second reading on the 14th September and is now in committee. There are number of ways to fight the bill and this piece will be a look at three different strategies, all of which will involving challenging the Tory narrative of trade unions being a negative force in British society.
Obviously the first strategy would be to defeat the bill in Parliament but this would probably have to be done by Labour working with some Tory rebels. Indeed, the electoral maths doesn’t favour Labour in this regard. Due to Sinn Féin’s abstentionism bills require 324 votes to pass, however the Conservative Party on their own have 330 votes; any parliamentary opposition coalition to the bill including Labour, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens, the Lib Dems, and the SDLP would only total 303 votes, thus requiring 21 votes from dissenting Tories or other right-wing parties like the DUP or UKIP.
The only other option would be that the bill fails in the House of Lords but this would only be a temporary measure; under the Parliament Act 1949 the time that the Lords could block legislation for was reduced to one year and the Salisbury Convention, although not formally a law, states that Lords will not oppose the second or third reading of any legislation put forward by the government if it was in the manifesto on which that government was elected. Labour Peers could argue that due to the low proportion of votes cast for the Conservatives at the election (36% of those who voted/27% of the total electorate) the Salisbury Convention doesn’t apply, but a number of crossbenchers are businesspeople who may support the restrictions on trade unions’ rights.
During the Labour leadership campaign Yvette Cooper claimed that she had received legal advice that said that the Trade Union Bill has the potential to breach Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, statute that, even if Britain were to leave the European Union in 2017, David Cameron has said that Britain shall opt back into. Article 11.1 states that “everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests”, with Article 11.2 stating that “no restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights other than such as prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”. I cannot see how the Trade Union Bill fits any of criteria that the Convention stated above that will allow some restrictions on trade unions; indeed I would argue that current restrictions on workplace balloting are not compatible with Article 11.2 and that any government argument put forward would be roundly rejected.
The third option is the most radical but I believe, if correctly executed, would be the most effective: a general strike. Before the vote, all trade union leaders should ballot their members as to whether or not to hold a general strike. Should the response be in the affirmative, the same union leaders should jointly sign an open letter published in as many newspapers as possible to David Cameron threatening a general strike if the legislation is passed, which may encourage some Tory MPs who currently oppose the Trade Union Bill, like former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, to stand up against the government.
If the parliamentary route to stop the bill’s passage fails, trade unions should make good on their promise and set a date for a general strike across the UK. The attacks on the trade unions themselves would result in a higher number of voters because those people who would reluctantly go on strike would be galvanised to protect the right that they occasionally exercise. Unlike in previous articles where I have suggested different tactics to maintain public support, in the case of a general strike enough disruption must take place, or the threat of such action, to bring huge sections of the economy to a grinding halt. If schools, fire brigades, transportation, post offices, hospitals etc. were closed for even a short space of time the economy would be damaged thus forcing the government’s hand. The Scottish TUC could argue with the government that if employment law was devolved to the Scottish Parliament as the SNP have argued for they would encourage their members to go back to work for example as a way of weakening the law in the short-term, with the TUC threatening another general strike in the not too distant future unless the law was repealed.
Opposition to the Trade Union Bill must be sustained even if it becomes law. Legal challenges in British and European courts should be employed with civil disobedience and general strikes carried out until the legal challenge was dealt with. In the mean time the trade union movement must redouble its efforts to organise within the Labour movement to promote left-wing political parties to challenge the Tory crackdown on union rights.