A general strike against anti-union laws?

This is a discussion article written by a Free Our Unions supporter, in a personal capacity.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch has suggested a general strike in response to Liz Truss’ threat of new anti-union laws. While the militant spirit is good, this does not bring much clarity about what we need to do. In the first instance, we need to get our unions to run a serious political campaign and mobilise large numbers to physically demonstrate against this threat – which I think there is a real risk they will not do.

Lynch said:

“The proposals by Liz Truss amount to the biggest attack on trade union and civil rights since labour unions were legalised in 1871. Truss is proposing to make effective trade unionism illegal in Britain and to rob working people of a key democratic right.

“If these proposals become law, there will be the biggest resistance mounted by the entire trade union movement, rivalling the general strike of 1926, the suffragettes and Chartism.”

The first problem is that what Lynch is actually proposing is far from clear; but let’s try to unpick the issues. (Other union leaders have been even less clear, using phrases like Sharon Graham’s unexplained “fierce resistance”.)

Firstly, I think the “there will be”, as if such an upsurge will happen automatically from where we are now, rather than needing to be fought and organised for, is itself not very helpful.

Presumably Lynch means a strike specifically against anti-union laws. If he means more general workers’ struggles despite or even in defiance of the new laws, that doesn’t help in terms of how to try to stop them. We absolutely do need to try to stop them – because they will be a serious problem, making a bad situation much worse; and also because a serious effort to do so will make defiance afterwards, if they do pass, more likely.

Additionally, the idea that the quick result of new laws making strikes much more difficult will be a big upsurge of strikes seems to me unfortunately pretty implausible.

If Lynch means strikes against anti-union laws specifically, he adds to the confusion by suggesting strikes after new laws are passed. If strikes are a plausible response to this threat, we should surely be working to mobilise them before it is carried into law. Or if doing it after the laws are passed is better, or more realistic, then it needs to be explained why – and we also need proposals for what to do before.

To be blunt: I think anything like a general strike against anti-union laws is really pretty unlikely, certainly within the timescale we are talking about (Truss has pledged to start legislating within thirty days of taking office). If Lynch means a general strike further down the line, again – what do we do now?

Even if such a strike was organised as multiple strikes through coordinated union-sponsored ballots, in line with the existing anti-union laws, it / they would still be illegal because the goal would be a political one (ie to demand the dropping or repeal of legislation), industrial action for which has been definitively banned since the 1980s.

It would be great if we could get it to happen nonetheless. We should make propaganda about such things. But frankly at the moment it is not very likely, and certainly not a helpful starting point.

Even in the much more favourable circumstances of the early 70s, when strikes – including wildcat strikes – were much, much more common and when solidarity strikes and strikes for political goals were still legal, the famous strikes that made Edward Heath’s Industrial Relations Act a dead letter began not as straightforward action to overturn the legislation, but a response to the jailing of pickets under the Act (the Pentonville Five, 1972).

If something like that happens under the laws Truss is proposing, or any of the existing anti-unin laws, then we should absolutely work to get a similar response. We should talk about it and prepare now. But we should be honest with ourselves that various factors probably make it more difficult and less likely than in the 70s.

In any case, the precursor to the industrial response to the jailing of the Pentonville Five was very big and militant union demonstrations to stop the law when it was going through Parliament in 1971.

To maximise the chances of industrial resistance to new anti-union laws and their consequences – or even just more industrial action despite or in defiance of these laws – we need much more large-scale and vibrant campaigning to stop the new ones and repeal old ones. Demonstrations, protests, political campaigning in many forms…

Several unions, including the RMT at its conference, have now passed policy (mostly on the initiative of Free Our Unions supporters) to organise a demonstration against the anti-union laws. Wouldn’t this be a good time to carry that out?

The recent record suggests the necessary campaigning will not happen without a push from below. In contrast to 1971, in 2015-16 there were few and very small protests against the Trade Union Bill (what became the Trade Union Act). Despite the efforts of left-wing activists, including those who went on to found Free Our Unions, unions did not mobilise on any scale at all, even just to demonstrate against the Bill.

Now we face an even more serious attack (and the Tories have a much bigger parliamentary majority). Will we do better than in 2015?

Let’s discuss the idea of strikes in response to these threats. Perhaps I’m being too conservative. But what seems absolutely clear is that talking about fierce resistance without doing some basic things like trying to organise large-scale protests, as part of a proper political campaign, is not serious.

We should argue and campaign not just for stopping new anti-union laws, not just for repeal of whatever the Tories are able to push through, but for repeal of all the anti-union laws. As argued here, the labour movement’s failure to do that over many years is one of the reasons we are so vulnerable to new attacks.

But again, if we want to maximise our chances of repealing anti-union laws under a Labour government, we need mass protest against new laws now.

The stakes are extremely high. We should work to pull our unions (and the Labour Party) beyond rhetoric on this and into serious discussions and active struggle.

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