This article, by Gregor Gall, was originally published on Jacobin in November 2019. Find it here.
In 1980s Britain, miners went on strike in support of nurses’ pay claims, throwing their industrial muscle behind under-pressure hospital staff. After decades of harsh anti-union laws, Labour’s manifesto promises a way to rebuild this culture of solidarity.
The headlines responding to Labour’s manifesto were predictably savage: the Daily Telegraph went with “Labour manifesto would allow mass strikes to paralyze the country,” while the Daily Mail proclaimed “John McDonnell tries to take Britain back to the strike-filled 1970s.” To many, this might seem like political ideology masquerading as news. But if unions are to regain their former power to discipline employers, perhaps these claims are not completely inaccurate.
Unlike Labour’s manifesto for the 2017 general election, this time around the party is promising to “remove unnecessary restrictions on industrial action” and “repeal anti-trade union legislation” — going beyond even the repeal of the Tories’ strike-busting Trade Union Act of 2016. After the Labour manifesto launch on November 21, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell told BBC Radio 4’s premier morning news program that this meant the party would repeal the ban on lawful secondary strikes.
There are, nonetheless, limits to the plan: McDonnell he ruled out a repeal of the ban on lawful secondary picketing. Such a move would have restored workers’ right to picket workplaces other than their own — stopping workers, goods, or services moving in or out, and thus providing another means of striking at employers.
This is important because since the ban introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1980 we have seen a dearth of secondary actions — the actions that workers take in support of other groups of workers.
There are a handful of contemporary examples of such actions, but they have mainly been found in the Royal Mail and among engineering construction workers. For example, in October 2019, fifty postal workers at north Liverpool’s Bootle and Seaforth sorting office walked out on unofficial strike over a racist remark made by a manager to a Muslim worker. Five days into this strike, the strike briefly spread to the huge Royal Mail depot in Warrington, when drivers from this depot were suspended for refusing to cross the Bootle picket line.
Equally, in 2009, there were two waves of strikes that spread through the engineering construction industry following the dismissal of workers at one site. In 2005, British Airways workers had struck unofficially in support of workers at airline-food firm Gate Gourmet when they were made redundant. The sacked workers had been employed by Gate Gourmet until British Airways outsourced their work.
These were all cases of solidarity strikes within a single employer or within a single sector. But we’d have to go back much further to find examples of solidarity strikes where workers took action to support workers in another industry. In the 1984–1985 miners’ strike, train drivers refused to cross picket lines — such as an instruction emblazoned on a bridge above the railway line — in order to avoid moving coal.
In 1982, in a series of rolling one-day strikes, miners in Scotland, South Wales, and Yorkshire came out on strike in support of striking nurses who were demanding a significant pay rise. It was a bold move for nurses to come out on strike, not least as they could be accused of endangering patients’ lives. The miners, however, could pile on the pressure on the government to settle the nurses’ pay claim, using their own industrial and political might.
This kind of solidarity was, indeed, a feature of other key struggles of this period. Take the postal workers who refused to deliver and collect mail for the Grunwick film processing laboratory, in the famous strike that began in 1976. Or take the one-day general strike across the West of Scotland, in support of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ work-in — a totemic fight to prevent redundancies.
All in it together
In contrast, there’s no substantial evidence of workers taking unlawful secondary action in recent years. Some may conclude from this that the proposed new right to take lawful secondary action will not amount to much, if it’s not going to be used.
In one sense, they are right. The union tradition of taking such action and the underlying organization needed to support it (such as union membership and activism) are much weakened compared to the 1970s. Moreover, such actions also require class consciousness among workers and a willingness to engage in much higher levels of struggle. So, a repeal of the ban on the right to take lawful secondary action will not be a magic panacea. But we should be in no doubt that the repeal would be a very important first step — necessary, if not sufficient.
Indeed, few groups of workers can win strikes on their own and do so quickly and effectively. In addition to anti-union laws which demand unions provide employers fourteen days’ notification in case of action (so that bosses can make counter-preparations), few groups can exercise strategic leverage over an employer’s operations (like pilots or train drivers).
Sometimes, this is because they aren’t providing essential services or because alternatives exist. And, sometimes this is because of low union density and strike-participation rates. The long-running strikes by the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) workers’ union on the railways over driver-only operations (getting rid of guards) are a testament to that.
So are strikes by workers at the end of a supply chain, unable to get support from workers further up it (for instance, if striking staff at a McDonald’s aren’t backed by the workers who supply the various goods and services the restaurant relies on). The logic here was aptly shown by a pub strike in Glasgow in the 1970s. Rather than try to close down the myriad of pubs by picketing — stretching the limited available numbers — the strikers went for the jugular by picketing at the brewery itself. With no beer, it was immaterial whether the pubs were open.
If Labour repeal the ban on lawful secondary action, this would provide an opportunity for the tradition of solidarity action to be rebuilt. But there are three further legal reforms that are needed to allow the effect of the repeal to fully flourish.
The first is that the current statutory balloting requirements need to be changed so that the period of time to organize a postal ballot is reduced. Labour has suggested that it may do this through allowing “unions to use secure electronic and workplace ballots.” The second is that the period of notification of action to employers needs to be revised downwards — at least to the seven-day limit that existed before it was increased to fourteen days after the Trade Union Act of 2016.
Labour has said it will do this, by repealing this act. Yet if the ban on secondary picketing — picketing a workplace other than one’s own — remains, then any secondary action will be less powerful than it might otherwise be. Indeed, secondary picketing would allow secondary action to begin far more quickly, as striking workers could persuade other workers to come out on strike by the force of their arguments.
That said, Labour’s manifesto is — as one might expect — miles ahead of any other party. The Conservatives have taken the opposite approach, stating that if they are elected, they will legislate to require a minimum service during rail strikes — preventing all-out stoppages. Obviously, they’re not going to repeal the Trade Union Act of 2016 or any other anti-union laws. In this, the Liberal Democrats ape the Tories, despite having opposed the introduction of the Trade Union Act when in coalition from 2010 to 2015. Here, the politics of the election breaks down on class lines.