This column was published in the Llanelli Herald on November 6th 2015
Nobody likes strikes. For people who use public services in particular they can be a pain. I know on the rare occasions my children’s teachers have been on strike my wife and I have cursed as we’ve struggled to re-jig our childcare arrangements.
But that’s not really the point, is it.
The right to take strike action has been a hard fought battle over generations. From the Chartists, to the Llanelli railway strikers of 1911, working men and women have made huge sacrifices to win protections at work.
And it’s not just a matter of history or sentiment; safeguards for people in their workplace form a key protection against harm and exploitation in the modern economy. The best employers recognise that, the worst don’t – and that’s why we have laws.
Now the Conservatives want to weaken those protections. David Cameron has introduced a new Trade Union Bill into Parliament that can only be described as extraordinary. But it seems to be passing largely without comment: a shrug of the shoulders, ‘what do you expect, they’re Tories’. But we cannot be so casual as crucial safeguards are chipped away.
Under the new law strike action will only be allowed to go ahead in key public services if the vote passes two tests: at least 50% of a union’s membership must take part, and over 40% of a union’s entire membership must vote in favour. So in effect, on a 50% turnout, a strike would need the support of 80% of those voting. There wouldn’t be a single MP in the House of Commons if that rule was applied consistently.
The Conservatives formed a Government on the basis of 37% of the vote but are demanding that ordinary workers get the support of 80% before being allowed to protest if they are being endangered.
This would have the practical effect of stopping strikes in the public sector – at a time when the number of strikes called is at a historically low level.
But they don’t stop there.
If there was a strike the new law says the organiser must give the police the name and address of everyone who plans to demonstrate.
Unions would be legally required to tell an employer two weeks in advance whether the strikers intend to carry a banner or loudspeaker.
In fact, the leader of the strike action would – by law – have to war an arm band or a badge to identify themselves to the authorities.
There’s an old line that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
Requiring people you don’t approve to wear badges or arm bands in public has been tried before. In fact the whole episode for me evokes the words of Father Martin Niemöller, the German pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler. After the War he said:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Strikes may be a pain when they are called. But the right to strike is a fundamental one in a democracy, and we mustn’t stand by as these rights are eroded.
Lee Waters is the Welsh Labour Assembly candidate for Llanelli