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Forcing Striking Workers to Wear Armbands Is an Attempt to Humiliate Them Into Submission

Britain's Trade Union Bill will turn trade unions into collections of individuals wearing silly armbands.

A trade unionist wearing a garish armband. I guess it's different when you chose to wear one rather than the government forcing you. Photo by Hannah Ewens

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

There's an excellent sketch from UK comedian Chris Morris's The Day Today, in which a Sinn Fein spokesman is shown having to inhale helium during an interview to "subtract credibility from his statements." Powerful sadists have always had little trouble raining down penury and despair on their captive populations—ruling by fear is easy; the hard part is making anyone who tries to do anything about it look ridiculous. Having effectively battered the country into pleading, pathetic submission, this is what our gibbering masters in Whitehall are now trying to achieve.


The UK government's proposed Trade Union Bill would initially require each picket to elect a supervisor, who would have to wear a colorful identifying armband, carry a letter of authorization from their union, and identify themselves to police. Human rights groups are warning that in the next phase of the Tories' grand plan to turn the whole of Britain into a quaintly fascist circus act, will demand the same thing from everyone who comes out to strike.

The idea is to make it a bureaucratic nightmare to organize any collective action, and to turn any picket into a garish circus, in the hope that people will just give up altogether and resign themselves to selling most of their lives for as many tossed pennies as they can catch in their mouths. But why stop there? It might not be long before strikers are legally obligated to wear jester's hats with big clanging bells, or millstones around their necks, scratched with the words "feckless skiver," or big red targets to mark them out for the weaponized drones buzzing overhead.

This bill has been harshly criticized by Liberty, Amnesty, and the British Institute for Human Rights—but a lot of the outrage at all this feels rote, uninspired, and slightly stupid: the Tories propose something vicious and awful, we complain about how monstrous it is, and then it happens anyway. Should anyone really be surprised that a Conservative government is trying to clamp down on collective bargaining?


It's certainly worrying that police will be empowered to demand the personal details of striking workers (they have a nasty habit of passing on this information to employers). But academics in civil law have complained that the new measures will turn the cops into the agents of the bosses, as if to imply that currently they might be something else. It's not as if cops haven't spent the most part of the last century gleefully bashing in the heads of striking workers. The modern British state isn't neutral in disputes between labor and capital: it's always just been a big and brutish strike-buster, with a flag and a navy and an unwarranted sense of self-importance.

What's stranger, though, is the fact that, for possibly the first time, the government is trying to legislate the behavior of individual strikers—in other words, they're trying to tell us how we should go about doing civil disobedience.

As is occasionally sneered by those on the anti-worker right-wing, there is no such thing in British law as a right to go on strike. When workers take strike action, they're usually acting in breach of their employment contracts: the bosses have bought their labor for the day, but they refuse to show up. Unions get legal protection when calling strikes, but actually turning up outside your workplace with a placard and a frown exists in a hazy twilight zone.

This is fine, for the most part. Certainly the last thing that any radical action needs is the condescending endorsement of the repressive state. But there's something deeply weird about that state imposing dress codes for picket lines: it's as if there were a law insisting that anyone who loots a TV during a riot must then properly recycle the packaging.

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The armbands are silly, but they represent something very insidious. Collective action works because while the bosses have power and resources, there are more of us than there are of them: in a union, workers can band together and make collective demands. When the law stops treating strikers as members of their union, and starts relentlessly individuating them—with demands for personal details, or written proof that they're even in a union at all—the heroic struggle of labor for fairer treatment becomes instead a bunch of jerks in armbands blocking off a perfectly good road.

It's no secret that the Tories hate the unions, but this isn't just an attack on organized labor: instead, they're starting to act as if it simply didn't exist. In its place, there are just some weirdos in stupid costumes, carrying signs and parading up and down as if that could fix anything, while the rest of us hardworking folk go about our usual toil, quietly and diligently and utterly alone.

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