Editorial from the April 1964 issue of the Socialist Standard
The recent decision of the House of Lords in the case of Rookes v. Barnard has again brought the question of strikers and the law into the limelight. The effect of the decision is that where a trade union has signed a contract not to strike or to give notice before striking, anyone harmed by a breach of this contract can bring a civil action for damage against those responsible.
This interpretation of the Trade Disputes Act, 1906, will virtually ban unofficial wild-cat strikes though it will not affect official strikes such as the recent AEU strike in Port Talbot. However, since many of the strikes which take place today are unofficial this decision represents a considerable threat to the right to strike.
In Britain both employers and trade unions have been eager to keep the law out of industrial disputes. Even so there have in recent times been periods when official strikes were illegal. The war-time Order 1305 which was not withdrawn until August, 1951, outlawed strikes and—of course-lockouts. It is generally acknowledged that this hampered attempts to resist the Labour Government’s “wage freeze” and “wage restraint though it was pressure from the unions which led to the Order being withdrawn. Thus, for nearly the whole period of the last Labour Government even official strikes were illegal. This was strikingly illustrated when in 1951 Hartley Shawcross, the Labour Attorney General, tried unsuccessfully to convict the leaders of a dock strike.
Under Capitalism, workers depend on their wages for a living. They live by selling their labour-power. Like all sellers, workers seek the highest possible price. To this end trade unions were formed to bargain with the capitalists. This bargaining must go on as long as labour-power is bought and sold, as long as Capitalism lasts that is. The main weapon the trade unions have in these struggles over wages is the strike. This is a class weapon and its loss would seriously hamper the workers in their day-to-day struggles.
But trade union action, as Marx pointed out in Value, Price and Profit, has its limits. He wrote:
" . . . the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerrilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!’ they ought to inscribe on their banner their revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wages system!’ ”