Why don't we fight the anti-union laws?

PCS militant Dave Vincent draws a military analogy

To see how blatantly one-sided and outrageous the anti-union laws are let us imagine the application of similar legislation to Britain during World War II.

We hear Hitler is about to invade Britain following his successes in Poland and France. People want to mobilise against it but find there is something called the ‘anti-defence laws’. To comply with this legislation we would have to ballot our armed forces on whether they want to fight and detail the action we intend to take. If we overlook a few soldiers by mistake we may have to ballot all over again.

We have to ensure a third party receives and counts the ballot papers and then await the result. This must be declared with the total number of ballot papers issued, and received back, together with the votes for and against, and those spoilt.

We then have to hand over all our defence plans to Hitler. Not only that, but we have go through the same exercise again for the Normandy landings (and any other battle before). We always have to reveal which units we are using, where they are going and when, and the armaments they will employ.

During the ballot (papers delivered to home addresses, not barracks) the armed forces personnel must hear Hitler’s continual broadcasts to the effect that resistance is futile and they receive letters from him in a similar vein urging their surrender - or else.

So if the ballot is lost there can be no fightback with surrender terms negotiated. If it is won Hitler is free to deride the low turnout. He will know whether the proposed action is overwhelmingly supported or opposed or whether we are split for and against. Those service personnel who argued for a fight are identified, then rounded up - we can guess what fate might await them.

If the ballot has been won Hitler can invite the service chiefs to ‘negotiations to settle the war’ (surrender again) whilst he is actively preparing to counter all our plans. The talks break down (as the ordinary service personnel knew they would) and we have to go into action against an enemy who knows our every move and has been preparing to counter them. (And even in these circumstances our troops would fight!)

Meanwhile rank and file soldiers, unaware of the ‘anti-defence laws’, have suggested we mount secret commando raids. The service chiefs react in horror, absolutely ruling such action out. It is illegal and the country would be heavily fined and bankrupted and the troops would not get paid.

Still, some soldiers go ahead and mount illegal raids that cause incredible disruption to Hitler’s forces. British service chiefs publicly denounce the raids, state no more can be mounted and hand the surviving commandos over to Hitler, even though ordinary soldiers think they should be defended and more raids should be mounted in full defiance of Hitler’s ‘anti-defence laws’!

The media denounce plans to fight Hitler, urging ‘common sense’ negotiations and acceptance of the reality of Hitler’s powerful armed forces and dominance of Europe. They really lay into the unofficial commando raids, publishing the names of those responsible and stating they are ‘the enemy within’.

Some bewildered civilians suggest calling the US in on our side. However, this too is illegal. The ‘anti-defence laws’ regard asking allies to support you as ‘secondary action’. Britain must fight Hitler alone with the home media totally hostile to self-defence! Of course, the ‘neutral’ anti-defence laws do not apply to Hitler. He can mount any attack, without giving any notice, using as much force and enlisting as many allies as he likes. He can bomb and kill civilians with impunity and execute all the service personnel he wishes after our surrender or defeat.

With laws like that how could we hope to defeat Hitler, even though many ordinary service personnel and civilians would still try?

Now, of course, in reality, the British media fully supported fighting Hitler, as the war was in the interests of British capitalism (sorry - in defence of western democracy and freedom), and our commandos would be lauded as heroes. We’d tell Hitler to get stuffed.

Of course, in the here and now our armed forces are the trade unions and Hitler is our ruling class. So why do union leaders accept these impossible laws, turn on our best fighters, seek negotiations and compromise (or total surrender) rather than victory? Why do they agree to inform the employers and ruling class of our plans in advance, while only coming up with action the employer can prepare for and agreeing not to seek allies?

Because they are never at war with our class enemies. Because protecting union funds safeguards their own wages. Because they are ready and willing to accept the rewards of collaboration with our enemies in the form of knighthoods and peerages for services rendered to their class, whilst betraying ours.

Our ‘soldiers’ of the working class have got to stop looking to their leader traitors to look after them. They have to decide what action they need to take, but they also have to politically educate themselves into understanding this would be a challenge to our rulers and their state and be ready to run the country themselves in the interest of their own class, just as bourgeoisie act for theirs.

What of my own union, the PCS? I read in the Weekly Worker and Workers Power that our executive member and leading Socialist Party activist, John McInally, argued ‘reluctantly’ against taking industrial action against our anti-union (anti-defence) laws at TUC congress, thus helping ensure the Prison Officers Association motion was defeated. This has since been confirmed in PCS View.

OK, I might agree with Mr McInally that our members may well not be up for industrial action to defeat the anti-union laws at this moment (actually we have not asked them), but they are never going to be if you always urge full compliance with those laws (as our SP-dominated NEC and SP full-time officials always do). They never educate our members about where those laws came from and their strangling effect on any action. Yes, PCS View shows pictures of smiling pickets in every dispute, but never explains why their action does not lead to too many victories. You will never see letters afterwards from angry activists questioning the limits of the strategy employed - or the quick settlement on terms many members are not happy with. I wonder why?

It simply is not the case that the anti-union laws are always used. Postal workers took illegal action that did not see the CWU have its funds sequestrated. It was the same with TGWU baggage handlers and the POA. In any case, our trade unions were formed in defiance of the anti-union laws of the day. And in modern times the Pentonville Five saw mass action that defeated the application of the brand new Industrial Relations Act. Much later it was vicious application of the anti-union laws that did for the miners’ strike, while the TUC and most other unions agreed to abide by them.

Nationalism also hinders us. The firefighters were accused of lack of patriotism and even of aiding terrorists by taking industrial action at a time when British armed forces were too stretched in Iraq and Afghanistan to break their strike. The FBU scaled it down to be reasonable - and lost. Recently GMB, Unite and Unison workers in Scotland took action separately from their comrades in England and Wales and now face defeat.

When, then, are union tops ever going to mount a serious fight against our anti-union laws? If they have their way they will never do so. But parliament will not repeal these laws unless unions continually unite to break them. You can bet the union tops would rage against a threat to ban the right of trade unions to exist (their wages and jobs would be at risk) but they are quite content with laws that hamstring their members.

Now that is class collaboration and it shows why the anti-union laws must be debated by any serious organisation of shop stewards (which the SP’s National Shop Stewards Network and SWP’s Organising For Fighting Unions are not because they will not). We cannot even have this debate at union conferences - after all, the leaders are inhibited from discussing defiance of the laws by the laws themselves!