The Daily Mail on 22 February carried an article reporting on “top secret” government plans to undermine strikes, with the Cabinet Office setting up a special “unit” to “prevent Britain grinding to a standstill in the event of mass public sector walkouts.”
According to the Mail, the plans include developing relationships with private firms to provide scab labour to break strikes, and establishing special contingency arrangements in key areas to maintain services during any industrial action. The Mail claims that government minister Francis Maude has analysed the workforce at thousands of prisons, schools, hospitals, railway stations, bus depots and energy facilities to work out where the most militant union staff are based.
The Mail loves to sensationalise any story about industrial action in order to create ludicrous caricatures of the labour movement as a monstrous “enemy within”. But if there is even the remotest shred of truth in the story, two conclusions are evident for revolutionary socialists.
First, we must ask why the leaders of our class are not conducting the class war with as much vigour as bosses’ leaders and the politicians who represent them. For militants in unions such as Unison — where getting the union bureaucracy to sanction a strike ballot over an individual local issue, much less one for coordinated national action, is frequently an uphill battle – the “mass public sector walkouts” and “general strike” spoken of in the Mail’s article are distant fantasies.
But, second, the moves represent a clear trend towards much more concerted efforts by bosses to undermine and effectively outlaw strike action.
Recent disputes involving NUJ, RMT, Unite and other unions have all fallen foul of expanded and more stringent interpretations of anti-union legislation, and senior figures in government and industry have called for new legislation to make strikes more difficult. Leaders in both the Tory and Lib Dem parties were making noises about the need to ban public sector strikes even before the coalition government came to power.
As the government goes after services such as the NHS and Royal Mail, we can be sure they will simultaneously attempt to hamstring any effective resistance, by shackling the workers in those services.
We need a real, direct-action campaign against anti-union legislation and strike breaking, and a frank discussion among rank-and-file militants across the public sector about ways to get around — and, where necessary, break — the law.