Lessons from America on the Trade Union Bill

Sarah Collins writes a letter from America after a recent trip there

If the Trade Union Bill passes then you can imagine the future headlines we can look forward to: ‘Local Authority issues ASBO to pesky trade union picket-line!’ and ‘Trade union fails to give employer 14 days’ notice of latest tweet – how very dare they!’.

The list of problems the Bill will create and concretise is endless. Coupled with the pre-existing anti-union legislation, they are potentially fatal. Our anti-union laws are already similar to the USA’s so-called ‘right to work’ legislation. This legislation, a package of anti-union measures, has been in force in some states since the 1940s. Now covering 25 states, the ‘right to work’ laws are designed to bankrupt unions. And they have nearly succeeded. Union density is now around 11%, down from the peak of 35% in mid-1940s with that decline has accelerated when ‘right-to-work’ rules have been passed.

The most recent examples of ‘right to work’ legislation have come from Michigan and Wisconsin, two of the heartlands of (de)industrialisation and, therefore, two of the strongest states in terms of organised labour. ‘Right to work’ is essentially the same as Thatcher’s ban on closed-shops and aims to develop ‘competition’ within unions whereby workers can pick and choose which unions to join and, indeed, can decide not to join a union at all.

However, ‘right to work’ goes further for it makes it unlawful for unions to have mandatory dues, meaning that workers who do not join the union or who decide that they want to enforce their ‘right’ not to pay membership fees will still be represented – not just through collective bargaining but also by being able to access services offered by the union, e.g. representation.

There is also a 50% turnout threshold for ballots on industrial action and similar restrictions as to turn-out when it comes to ‘important’ public services. It is unsurprising then that in 2014 there were only 11 major work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers, the second lowest total since 1947.

Nonetheless, it is clear that it is in the private sector (where density is 7% compared to 30% in public sector) that unions are focussing on their fight back. And there are three important lessons for our ‘kill the bill’ campaign.

First, we need a coherent, co-ordinated strategy which covers all bases. This seems obvious but it is something which labour organisers in the US have complained their own unions did not have in Michigan and Wisconsin to defeat the law, and there was certainly no ‘plan B’ for the legislation passing.

The ‘right to work’ states have similar secret balloting procedures and the reason for this was the same as introduced in Britain, namely the government wants to limit workplace meetings discussing and deciding on industrial action. However, it is not clear whether all states impose a home, postal ballot. It seems that some permit secret ballot boxes in the workplace. This, coupled with e-voting, would ensure internal union democracy. If we can learn something from the US here, it is that it’s not going to be enough to simply state our opposition to the Bill. We need to put forward our own alternative system and balloting is an area in which we can do this.

Second, US unions are faced with multi-million dollar union busters, the scale of which has simply not been seen in the UK yet. The union busters have extraordinary marketing and advertising strategies. Only in the past few years have labour organisations, like the UAW, began putting money and resources into combating these tactics using the same publicity methods. All of our unions and confederations need to get a lot better, very quickly, at communicating online and through social media.

Third, the model of social movement unionism is perhaps the most important. This model could enable us to recruit and retain new, younger, members. The Better than Zero campaign run by the STUC at the moment is loosely based on the US ‘Fight for $15’ movement which is an example of such a model.

The idea behind these campaigns is activists outside of the workplace pull visible, professional and vibrant stunts and then do follow-up engagement with the workers in order to unionise them. This appeals to the idea of social movements where there isn’t one sector protecting their own interests and where different methods of organising can be used. Such forms can potentially overcome the picketing restrictions (you’re not a picket if you just happen to fancy a flash-mob on Ashton Lane, are you?) and can actually begin growing membership again.

A thorough debate is needed in all unions about the tools and methods to ‘kill the bill’. We also require a strategy for dealing with the consequences of the Bill if enacted. We have seen in the US what happens without, and then with, such a strategy. Let’s use this to ensure our fate is in our hands.

Sarah Collins is a founding member of RISE – Scotland’s Left Alliance.