Taking on the Tories’ Trade Union Act

In early October 2017, the CWU communications’ union set the bar for all other major unions by easily surpassing the new legal requirement for gaining a nationwide mandate in an industrial action ballot. Needing to achieve at least a 50% turnout for a lawful mandate for action, it gained an 89% vote for strike action on a 74% turnout (and, in the process, would have also surpassed the other new threshold of this also equating to 40% of all those entitled to vote in vital public services like schools, hospitals, airlines and railways).

Since the Tory Trade Union Act 2016 imposed these new thresholds from 1 March 2017 onwards, a number of unions have been fearful of staging industrial action ballots amongst large groups of workers spread throughout the country. One of these has been the new National Education Union, formed from the ATL and NUT. It has said that its industrial action in future is more likely to be on a school-by-school basis. This is because whilst unions are confident of achieving a ‘yes’ vote amongst those voting, they are not confident of securing a 50% plus turnout (or the additional 40% threshold in important public services like schools). Their fears were underpinned by the loss of some big and important ballots early on – amongst London Underground workers, North Sea offshore workers and local government workers in Scotland. But the successful CWU ballot of over 110,000 postal workers in thousands of separate workplaces shows that unions need not fear if they approach the ballot in the right way.

The CWU began the mobilisation to gain a strike mandate well over six months ago with the creation of its ‘Four Pillars’ campaign over i) decent pensions; ii) a shorter working week; iii) extension of the 2013 legally binding agreement with Royal Mail prior to privatisation; and iv) the maintenance of the universal service obligation. This ‘Four Pillars’ campaign aims to stop the now privatised company driving down members’ terms and conditions of employment in order to help it retain market share and boost profitability.

Lesson one is pick an issue – or set of issues – that really matters to members. Asking members to strike for just a 1% higher pay rise might not provide much motivation when the cost of striking could wipe any higher pay rise and where the real value of pay has fallen by over 10% since 2010. Being able to decide what is the right issue to run with can only be gained by doing the necessary ground work of talking extensively to members to judge their mood.  

Lesson two is about gradually upping the ante amongst members. So in the case of the CWU’s postal union members, first, there was a petition amongst members and union reps meetings, then there were the countless bulletins and umpteen video messages or podcasts. All these were supplemented by campaign material in various formats. And, all this was before the ballot was even launched. The ballot was then followed by the largest online union meeting in recent times and hundreds of workplace gate meetings. Although the members of the CWU postal union deliver ‘snail mail’, they have not shirked from extensively using social media like twitter and facebook to further reinforce the campaigning message. So this has been the strategy of a ‘slow burn’ rather than a ‘quick flash in the pan’ campaign. It was patient, methodical and well-planned out. Other unions cannot expect to pass the new thresholds unless they do so similarly.

The lessons to be learnt from the CWU by other unions are vital following this year’s TUC congress where a number of unions including PCS have signalled they want to take joint national strike to beat the government’s public sector pay cap of 1%.

Indeed, PCS seems to be taking the same course as the CWU in its slow, patient pre-ballot national mobilisation of members over this summer on pay. The union took the decision to hold this consultative ballot in late July and has since organised an escalating body of pay protests, starting with the HMRC (31 July), then across the Ministry of Justice, Home Office and HMRC (31 August) and then across the civil service including the DWP (29 September) and again on 31 October. Reps have been encouraged to organise payday demos, talk face-to-face to members, arrange members’ meetings, collect members’ contact information and recruit new members to the union. The ballot which ran from 9 October to 6 November was followed by a facebook live meeting. PCS used the consultative ballot to map out strong and weak areas in its membership so that come the statutory industrial action ballot it can focus upon the weaker areas with extra resources to make sure not just of a ‘yes’ vote but, critically, a 50%+1 turnout.

But, of course, for the CWU and other unions, the stage after winning the ballot is equally important. Winning the ballot is necessary but not sufficient. The question then is: can unions mount effective strike action to gain their bargaining objectives when the Trade Union Act also increases the period of notice they must give employers of the action and reduces the length of the lawful mandate for action? The first change means that any action could be less effective than before while the second means that the dispute must be won more quickly than before if the union is to avoid having to reballot again.

Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford