In 1997, Tony Blair approvingly described Britain as having “the most restrictive union laws in the western world.” There is no legally-enshrined right to strike; unions are forced to jump over a series of bureaucratic hurdles in order to take action; strikes for political demands are illegal; strikes in solidarity with other workers are illegal.
13 years of Labour government from 1997-2010 left those restrictions, built up by Tory governments throughout the 1980s and early 90s, entirely untouched. David Cameron’s government tightened restrictions even further with the 2016 Trade Union Act, which imposed turnout thresholds on industrial action ballots – an arbitrary measure not applied to any other sphere of democratic life.
The 2019 Tory manifesto promised still more restrictions, committing to implement legally-mandated minimum service requirements during transport workers’ strikes. Where such laws exist in other countries, they often entail unions agreeing with employers, sometimes via an arbitration body, to exempt a portion of their membership from participation in a strike, in order to ensure the minimum service. In other words, they turn unions into administrators of scabbing. The 2021 AGM of the RMT union passed a resolution committing the union to “non-complicity” in setting minimum service levels.
In response to an upsurge in workers’ action during 2022, the Tories have developed plans for yet more restrictions. Senior figures like Liz Truss and Grant Shapps published proposals for extensive new laws. A Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill was announced in October 2022.
Now Rishi Sunak’s government has unveiled details of plans for further restrictions. The proposals extend minimum service requirements beyond the rail industry, to health, education, fire, ambulance services, and nuclear commissioning, giving employers in those sectors the right to dismiss employees who refuse to work if designated as part of the minimum service complement during strikes.
The proposal entrenches a de facto dictatorship of the boss. It means that even workers who have voted, via the onerous and arbitrary balloting procedures set by the state, to go on strike can be ordered to work by the employer. All restrictions on the right to strike are not only an affront to workers’ rights, but an affront to democracy and civil liberties.
The best time for the labour movement to have launched an active, on-the-streets campaign of direct action against threatened new restrictions on the right to strike was in 2019, when the Tories unveiled the commitment in their manifesto. The second best time was any time since. The third best time is now.
That campaign must confront not only the proposed new restrictions, which are universally opposed across the labour movement and which Labour has committed to repeal in government, but all existing ones. A defence of “the right to strike” which functions to defend an abject status quo against getting any worse is not really a fight for “the right to strike” at all.
The campaign must include meetings, in workplaces and communities, rallies, demonstrations and protests, alongside an expansion of solidarity with existing and future strikes to help them win. Although the House of Lords may knock some of the worst edges off the Tories’ proposals, current parliamentary arithmetic means the new laws are likely to be passed in some form. This means the labour movement must also prepare to defy them. We will be better placed to organise that defiance if we have spent the period prior to the imposition of the new laws actively mobilising against them.
Free Our Unions aims to contribute to that mobilisation by connecting rank-and-file trade unionists who want to catalyse action on the issue in their own workplaces and unions. But the core campaign must be run by unions themselves, under their own banners, with their own resources, mobilising their own members directly – not “outsourced” to any external body or campaign coordination.
Our next organising meeting, open to all supporters of our campaign, will discuss how we can organise most effectively. Join us via Zoom at 7pm on 17 January.