Re-igniting the Labour Movement
Power is taken from below, not gifted from above - or so the saying goes. All the rights working people have won are thanks to years of struggle. Decades of strikes over pay paved the way for the National Minimum Wage; the Working Time Regulations and more. There is no smoke without fire, yet years of repressive laws have choked the flames of what was once a roaring blaze of a trade union movement. Are we on the verge of re-ignition?
In the last decade, every single new piece of trade union legislation has sought to limit our power. Building on the punitive foundation of Thatcher’s Employment Acts of 1980 – 1990, the Trade Union Act 2016 picked up right where she left off. It forced new quotas on balloting. It set new restrictions on political funds. It was also preceded by its ugly sisters-in-law, the Lobbying Act and Security Act: both of which created obstacles for organising and apprehension among activists. While the government and employers alike have overseen huge numbers of redundancies, pay freezes and pension raids; these laws made fighting those attacks even harder.
According to the Office for National Statistics, the last two years have seen the lowest numbers of workers involved in strike action since records began in 1891. The inability of unions to organise and mobilise effectively in turn hurts workers’ conditions all the more. Without the threat of industrial action, employers have had more confidence and incentive to pay lower wages, outsource more contracts and employ more precariously. Since the Trade Union Act was passed, the number of workers on zero hours contracts has tripled to 2.8 per cent of the workforce. With our workplaces more fractured, making organisation itself more difficult, we have been placed in a legislative straightjacket.
Other statistics tell a more hopeful story, though. While industrial action may not involve as many people, we are beginning to see more strikes, lasting for longer. Last year, the number of strikes in the private sector was at its highest level since 1996. Given that year was the eve of a change of government; could we now be heading a similar way? Historically there has been a pattern in industrial activity which declines and builds before a collapse of Tory rule.
Working days lost per strike:
There is progress to be made on every front. A change in government on December 12th could well afford workers investment in jobs and services. It could give us more influence over the way our workplace is run. Any and all of these will be down to the demands of the trade union movement, not just the government which passes them.
What turns a manifesto pledge into a real-life issue is the union member willing to fight for it. Industrial struggles legitimise policies in the consciousness of the wider public. As the country goes to the polls, many workers are in the throes of various workplace battles, on issues that could define this election. Lecturers across the country are preparing to strike over pensions, while library workers are walking out over cuts. The inspiring McStrikers will are picketing once more in their demand for a liveable wage. Postal workers, who delivered an extraordinary ballot result in the face of the threshold, are yet to name the dates for their strike as they fight for the future of jobs at Royal Mail.
While the general election may distract attention away from these campaigns, they must be a reminder to our movement that any success at the ballot box must be backed up by action in the workplace. These specific disputes each represent months, if not years, of struggle to build density. They are also all symbolic of the kinds of changes we wish to see made at a national level, for the benefit of all working people. The trade unionists on strike in the lead-up to the general election are our trailblazers, and this is one blaze we can’t afford not to fan the flames of.