Effective strike action is always illegal
Injunctions have been used to prevent or delay strike action by BA cabin crew - twice, and against rail signal workers in April, making use of strict criteria for balloting union members and informing them and the employers about the result. This tactic is being used more and more with 15 injunctions applied for and 14 granted from 2005-8, but 11 applied for and 10 granted last year, and 7 applied for in the first 5 months of this year.
The issue is being well publicised in the media. When the latest BA injunction was granted we heard more about the unions' ‘special privilege' to be able to cause economic mayhem; when it was overturned, more about the risk to the right to strike. The RMT is appealing to the European Court to overturn the legislation allowing injunctions on a technicality.
The so-called right to strike
When we listen to commentators discussing whether these injunctions take away the right to strike or simply make it much harder to exercise that right, we should not forget just how limited an aspect of strike action they are talking about. This right to strike excludes wildcat strikes decided at mass meetings, like the Lindsey strikes last year; it excludes the solidarity strike of baggage handlers at Heathrow in 2005 who supported the workers at Gate Gourmet; it excludes action by those who refused to cross picket lines during the postal workers' strikes, when their section had not been called out by the unions; and it excludes secondary picketing - all illegal. Solidarity and extension of struggle are the basis of effective strike action, and no-one on the media is talking about that at all.
Today workers in all industries and all across the world are facing the same kind of austerity attacks, the same risk to jobs and the same rising unemployment as all bosses respond to the new stage in the economic crisis. Not only that, but many of the attacks are being determined and coordinated by the state, yet farmed out to different businesses and contractors to carry them out - whether it is Network Rail, this or that train operator, academy school or Local Education Authority, Primary Care or Hospital Trust or commercial operator. We simply cannot respond to austerity on this scale with a struggle divided by trade, by membership of this or that union or according to which employer exploits us.
In other words, injunctions or no injunctions, effective strike action has been outside the law all along.
These are not just down to ‘Thatcher's anti-union laws'. However much her government contributed to the legislation it was only continuing work started by the Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s and continued by the Blair government which laid the basis for employers to seek injunctions on technicalities. In other words it comes from the whole ruling class.
‘Anti-union' laws help unions control workers
Why the rash of injunctions now? In part, of course, because they are aware of the growing discontent and anger among workers and they want to make it as hard as possible for it to erupt into strike action. But it is perfectly clear that injunctions are not always used against strikes, and particularly not when workers are in a struggle that expresses solidarity beyond the bounds of legal trade union struggle. If the unions claiming to act on behalf of the workers can't keep them within the narrow limits of a legal strike, waiting for a ballot, warning the employer, not contacting other workers, then it's hardly likely that a High Court judgement will prevent a strike. So injunctions are a tactic bosses can use when workers are hesitant, unsure of how to take a struggle forward - as they are today in most cases, faced with the enormity of the economic crisis and the threat of austerity and sharply rising unemployment.
For example the BA cabin crew are not only facing job losses now, but will face further attacks during the planned merger with Iberia Airlines. They have followed Unite through the whole long drawn out balloting and negotiating process. But despite the fact that they are following all the union tactics, they still won't accept the deal arranged by the union. Simon Jenkins (on ‘Any Questions' 21/5/10) told us that Walsh was getting on very well with the Unite leaders, "the trouble lay with the staff on the ground ... unions don't organise themselves well enough so they can deliver". Similarly, Duncan Holley, BASSA branch secretary, told The Times that they would be unable to sell the deal to the members who don't trust BA. The injunctions, like the ballots and negotiations, lead workers into the morale-sapping delays and on-off strikes, separated from other airline workers who are currently being organised into an alternative cabin crew to break the strike.
Workers have nothing to gain from supporting a campaign to defend the unions or the ‘right to strike', nor from the RMT's visit to the European Court. Workers and unions are on different sides of the class war. The unions need to sell the bosses' austerity in ways that their members can be induced to tolerate, and when it's intolerable keep the response within the legal limits. This is exactly what they have been doing in the BA strike.
When workers burst these narrow limits to struggle and seek or show solidarity, uniting across all the divisions imposed by capitalism and unions, then no injunction will stop them.