Political strikes, the war in Ukraine, and the anti-union laws

By a Free Our Unions supporter

Actions by UK dockers in Cheshire, Kent and Scotland’s northern isles to stop Russian fossil fuels from coming to the UK, in protest at the invasion of Ukraine, are part of a proud tradition of workers’ action here for political goals.

The ILWU union in the US’s West Coast ports has made a statement confirming that its members will not load or unload any Russian cargo coming in or going out. “With this action in solidarity with the people of Ukraine, we send a strong message that we unequivocally condemn the Russian invasion.”

The ILWU has a remarkable recent history of political strikes and industrial action – including a 2020 strike in support of Black Lives Matter, and before that action against the Iraq war and South African apartheid. In the UK you have to go back a bit further to find much such actions.

In the 19th century, some textile workers refused to work with cotton picked by enslaved people in the United States – preparing the way for mass working-class protests against the threat of British intervention in support of the slave-owners during the US civil war.

In 1920 dockers in east London refused to load weapons to be sent to the anti-Bolshevik White Armies in the Russian civil war.

In the 1970s, workers at the Rolls-Royce factory in East Kilbride, Scotland, refused to work on parts for the Chilean airforce in protest at the Pinochet dictatorship and its repression.

But since the 1980s, it has been illegal under anti-union laws for unions to endorse and organise such action, leaving workers who take it vulnerable. Without union protection, refusal to work is not legally recognised as industrial action, but is breach of contract. As a result strikes and industrial action for political goals have become less common.

Industrial action without cumbersome and atomising procedures including a postal ballot and long notice periods is also now illegal.

In September 2019, some workers in the UK tried to revive the tradition of political industrial action by finding ways to take action alongside the youth climate strikers, as part of the global climate strike. The idea of industrial action for the climate is something that urgently needs developing. Free Our Unions aims to contribute to this via our collaboration with Earth Strike UK in the “Empower the Unions” initiative.

The action by dockers around the country, in protest at the war in Ukraine – political industrial action, without a ballot, brave even given the general agitation around Ukraine – shows that the anti-union laws can be defied (as do other unofficial actions for more conventional industrial demands). We should use this opportunity to champion more industrial action for political freedom and social justice; and to challenge the anti-trade union laws and demand their repeal.

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