A summer punctuated with inconvenient disruption has crystalised into a bitter autumn of ongoing strikes and picket lines.

The end of the warm weather means more of us opting to take the bus. But the choice between a walk and a bus ride is no longer a leisurely activity. To avoid getting caught out on the colder strike days as their frequency increases, more of us are having to cautiously check travel plans and calibrate our schedules.

Still, criminalising Union activity is a terrible idea

Tensions between rail bosses and employees escalated in the hands of transport secretary Grant Shapps. Instead of encouraging dialogue between the train companies and their union representation, Shapps has devised a 16-point plan to curb the power of Unions and the subsequent disruption caused by industrial action. These include raising the minimum threshold of support for strike action from 40 per cent of eligible workers to 50 per cent.

The proposals consciously emulate Margaret Thatcher’s efforts to depower the Unions and to lessen the inconvenience caused to the public by workers who withdraw their labour. Two of these measures are already in place:

‘allowing agency staff to work during strikes;

‘and increasing the fines for unlawful action.’

The introduction of these policies without further consultation or debate in the Commons has caused outrage and fear among unions and the transport employees who felt compelled to strike.

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Mick Lynch, the General Secretary of the RMT (Rail, Maritime and Transport Union) doubts the legality of the measures and worries that: ‘if [Union] members don’t comply with the companies’ instructions to go to work, they can be sacked. So they can be sacked for taking lawful industrial action.’

Something of that very nature happened in California in March 2019. Nerexda Soto, an organiser for the labour union Unite Here, was ‘handcuffed and removed’ from the Hyatt Andaz Hotel in West Hollywood.

At the time, she was simply fulfilling her duties as a Union Representative for employees of the hotel, who were left exasperated by her mistreatment. In response, Unite Here Local 11 (the Californian branch of Unite Here), ‘filed an unfair labour practice [ULP] charge […] alleging that Hyatt Andaz management had unlawfully limited Ms. Soto’s access rights and had her arrested.’ At the time of her arrest by ‘four officers,’ Soto was undertaking the accepted, standard practice of ‘sitting in the cafeteria talking to workers about contract negotiations.’

The consensus among striking workers was that the removal of their Union representative was unlawful and baseless since ‘she had the legal right to be there’.

The outcry culminated in an unfair labour practice strike where employees of the Hyatt Andaz Hotel staged a day-long walkout.

It is this culture of criminalising legitimate Union action that should send alarm bells ringing. Being not so far away from Shapps’ list of policies this — in the words of Mick Lynch — ‘make(s) illegal what is currently lawful’ and compromises the basic, long-established freedom to vote with your feet. A hard-won right.

The right to ‘vote with your feet’ is indispensable

Those in Parliament cannot attack the rail Unions for changing strike plans at the last moment when they subject workers to the same unfair chopping-and-changing approach. Rail employees and Union members have grown accustomed to certain procedures for airing and resolving grievances. More arrests and cautions are likely in retaliation to strike action becoming outlawed virtually overnight. In turn, the gap between Unions and rail companies will only widen, resulting in a lack of cohesion at a time when dialogue is most urgently needed.

Speaking of which, criminalising Union measures may well produce super strikes: strikes over the very right to go on strike. This will only deepen the disagreement at hand, creating even more issues to iron out while distracting from core grievances. The least financially comfortable workers would inevitably be the hardest hit. Withdrawing labour for an increased number of days will severely hurt those workers who already struggle to make ends meet; those who strike to emphasise this very point. Strikes over pay have also been prompted by the absence of worker pay increases while rail companies make extortionate profits — with CEOs receiving six-figure salaries.

Parallels can be found in the Californian ULP strike if you replace ‘transport companies’ with ‘hotels.’ Hotel workers reported working ‘paycheck to paycheck’ under a wage of $19 an hour — hardly sufficient for meeting pension and health insurance costs in the Golden State.

Removing the right to strike from the most financially vulnerable workers eradicates the notion of taking power away from the wallet and into the ballot box. Making it more costly to strike with the aim of limiting public disruptions is a poor call. It will be a sad state of affairs if the only people who can afford to strike are the ones who least need to, or can afford not to.

Undercutting long-established Union measures and practices would be a dangerous gift to employers. Not least because it would legitimise exploitation. If the right to strike action is compromised, the capacity to question employment standards may become negligible. Striking rail employees have reported being advised to work elsewhere if they cannot endure their current conditions. This stance ignores the reality that it places future employees in exactly the same undesirable position of having no choice but to suck it up or leave. Once again, the most vulnerable workers would be at the mercy of unscrupulous employers and their systemic abuse.

Ensuring a sustainable end to unfair labour practices is a key reason for the ongoing strikes. It’s easy to criticise striking workers when your industry isn’t affected by the need to raise wages or improve work conditions. If rail strikers need to go to these lengths to defend better pay and secure a more hospitable work environment, any given sector and the rights of its union could be next.

Unfair Labour Practice Strike in LA: Listen to the full interview

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