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Covid-19 crisis: Protect the right to strike!

Already in the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve seen examples of workers taking industrial action, often to improve workplace safety. Outsourced cleaners, caterers, and porters at Lewisham Hospital walked out to demand the payment unpaid wages. Workers in Lambeth libraries took action to demand the closure of their workplaces. Postal workers in Bridgend struck, after bosses refuse to revise shift patterns and staffing levels to ensure safe distancing in the workplace.

Continue reading “Covid-19 crisis: Protect the right to strike!”
Featured

Resist the Tories’ new anti-strike law!

In his government’s first Queen’s Speech, Boris Johnson has announced that he plans to introduce new laws to restrict strikes. There could be little clearer indication of the class loyalties of his government than this.

Continue reading “Resist the Tories’ new anti-strike law!”

Scottish TUC to debate motions on fighting anti-strike laws

The upcoming congress of the Scottish TUC, which takes place from 17-19 April, will see delegates debate several motions on fighting anti-strike laws.

These correctly call for the labour movement to fight for the repeal of all anti-union and anti-strike laws, and acknowledge the failure of 13 years of Labour government to make any dent in this legislative regime. A motion from Unite also calls for pressure on Labour to commit to repealing all these laws within 12 months of taking office. We republish the motions below as good examples of policies that should be debated and taken up across the movement.

The motions also call for employment law to be devolved to Scotland, as it currently is to Northern Ireland, which allowed socialist MLA Gerry Carroll to propose a Trade Union Freedom Bill at Stormont.


Defending Trade Union Freedom (proposed by STUC General Council)

“That this Congress believes we are witnessing a new era of industrial struggle as increasing numbers of workers take action to secure decent pay and protect their jobs, terms and conditions. Years of austerity, now compounded by the economic instability from Brexit, the pandemic and a deepening cost of living crisis have resulted in an increase and growing escalation of disputes across private, public and third sectors.

“Congress believes that public sympathy remains with workers despite the hostility shown by sections of the media towards unions and trade union leaders.

“Congress believes that this growing movement, and the significant wins that unions have delivered, running alongside a heightened political awareness is viewed as a threat to the power and narrative of the UK Government.

“Congress believes that the UK Government’s response to introduce further anti-trade union legislation, including restricting the right to strike, as a fundamental attack on trade union freedom and a violation of human rights.

“Congress calls upon the STUC General Council to vigorously oppose any new anti-trade union legislation and campaign effectively:

  • for the devolution of employment law to Scotland;
  • for the repeal of all current anti-trade union legislation;
  • for the Scottish Government, COSLA and all employers to respect collective bargaining arrangements where they currently exist;
  • for the extension of collective bargaining in Scotland under the auspices of Fair Work;
  • to ensure Scottish Government deliver on their commitment for Scotland to become a Fair Work nation by 2025; and
  • in support of the TUC, and TUC-affiliated unions, campaigns, and legal challenges to protect the right to strike and challenge the regulations on the use of agency workers to fill in for striking workers.”

Urgent Need to Devolve Employment Law to Scotland (proposed by Inverness and District Trade Union Council)

“That this Congress notes the British Conservative Government is not only pushing through the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill but was actively considering proposals to ban Border Force staff from joining a trade union. The latter not been pursued due to the protections of the ECHR. These unwanted proposals build on past legislation such as the Trade Union Act (2016).

“The Bill applies throughout Britain as Employment Law is under the reserved remit of Westminster. In the Smith Commission, a possible change failed to find consensual support and hence employment law stayed reserved. Scottish Labour continues to support Westminster to legislate employment law: a grievous mistake. We are in the position that the Scottish Government is engaged in pay talks with public service unions but the very framework of these laws is not in their control.

“Rather it is in the hands of those who are absolutely opposed to workers’ rights, as the Conservative’s look to implement its slash and burn Brexit Freedoms Bill, pass the specific Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill and considers a British Bill on Human Rights to replace the ECHR which will decimate the protections that our members enjoy.

“Thus, the need for urgent action.

“The democratic deficit results in past legislation such as Thatcherite Trade Union Act 1984 to the Trade Union and Labour Act 1992 not being repealed by the British Labour Government.

“We must thus take the responsibility to safeguard workers’ rights in law under the Scottish Parliament. We must not only fight these anti-trade union laws (with specific campaigning on the above Retained EU Law Bill) but Congress resolves that the STUC General Council therefore will campaign for the devolving of Employment Rights with like-minded parties to not only Westminster but all within Scottish civil society.”

Trade Union and Employment Rights (proposed by Unite)

“That this Congress condemns the renewed attack on trade union rights (including the introduction of legislation on the use of agency labour to break strikes and proposals to undermine industrial action in the transport sector through the so-called Minimum Services Bill) and calls for the repeal of all anti-union laws.

“Congress also condemns the fact that trade union rights could also be undermined by other legislation such as the Public Order Bill and the Retained EU Law Bill.

“Congress believes that attacks on trade union rights and on employment rights more widely further demonstrates the case for the devolution of employment law.

“Congress, therefore, calls upon the STUC General Council to organise a campaign for the repeal of all anti-union laws, the devolution of employment law, opposition to any further attacks on trade union rights and the introduction of a Bill of Rights providing positive employment and trade union rights – including strong rights to collectively bargain and to
take strike action.

“In the event of a Labour Government elected in the next two years, Congress calls on that Labour Government to repeal all anti-trade union laws within 12 months of gaining office.”

The Tories are clear about their anti-strike bill

The government has issued a response to the online petition against their proposed new anti-strike laws. The article, which is online here and reproduced below, gives some important insights into their thinking.

Most of the emphasis is on “ensuring that services vital for the British people’s lives and livelihoods […] maintain a basic function.” The threat of an outright ban on striking is invoked, by reference to other countries where fire and ambulance workers are banned from striking, although the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, in whose name the statement is issued, says it “does not wish” to do that in Britain.

The statement claims the law does not restrict “the ability to strike”, but in the very next sentence confirms that it does precisely that for any workers designated as part of the minimum service complement.

Despite occasional references to safety, there is also much emphasis on “disruption”, suggesting Tory voters’ “right” not to be “disrupted” in any way is at least as prominent in ministers’ minds as the professed sentiments about a right to access vital services.

But it is a sentence near the beginning of the statement that is perhaps most revealing. The statement says: “Following introduction of the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, the situation on industrial action has changed significantly. Union bosses continue to dismiss the reasonable recommendations of independent pay review boards, which the Government has accepted, in favour of above-inflation pay demands which threaten to push up pay for everyone.”

This makes clear that the intent of the laws is as much about disciplining unions for having the temerity to demand above-inflation pay rises, and to take action aimed at winning them. If workers won’t meekly accept wage cuts and falling living standards, the Tories are telling us, then we will have to be legally coerced into acceptance by the impositions of restrictions on our one effective means of doing anything about it.

The law must be seen in the context of the Tories’ wider attempts to crack down on dissent through new laws restricting the right to protest. This is an attack on democracy, free speech, and civil liberties as much as an attack on workers’ rights.


The Government believes in the ability to strike. However, this must be balanced against our first duty: to preserve the lives and livelihoods of British people by protecting essential services.

Following introduction of the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, the situation on industrial action has changed significantly. Union bosses continue to dismiss the reasonable recommendations of independent pay review boards, which the Government has accepted, in favour of above-inflation pay demands which threaten to push up pay for everyone. Prolonged disruption, not just to transport but to a range of essential services, has had significant impacts on the lives and livelihoods of the public.
Therefore, the Government thought it only right to introduce the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, a bill which secured minimum levels of safety and service across a larger number of key sectors.

This legislation seeks to ensure that services vital for the British people’s lives and livelihoods, like rail, ambulances, and fire services, maintain a basic function, delivering minimum levels of safety and service during strike action. Only by doing this can we fulfil our basic duty to the public.

The ability to strike is a critical part of industrial relations in the United Kingdom, and it is rightly protected by law. This Government understands, too, that an element of disruption is inherent to any strike. But recent industrial action has caused unprecedented disruption for everybody; for members of the public who rely on rail to get to work or care for their family; for NHS staff trying their best to deliver care for patients; for children in schools trying to recover months of lost learning after the pandemic; and for local businesses who lose employees and custom at a time when they need it most.

This legislation does not seek to impede the ability to strike. At most, it restricts the ability to strike only for those workers named in a work notice, who are required to work to ensure that a minimum level of safety and service can be maintained during strike action.

This is not a radical move; it is similar to what can be seen in other modern European countries. Some countries, including Australia and Canada, have the ability to ban strikes that endanger life outright, such as in their ambulance and firefighting services. We do the same for our police force, but we do not wish to do that with other public services.

We hope that we will not have to use the powers in this Bill where adequate voluntary agreements are in place. However, we cannot continue to rely upon existing legislation or voluntary arrangements to protect the people we represent.

This legislation, therefore, represents a reasonable, balanced, and – above all – fair response, which protects the right to strike whilst ensuring a minimum level of safety and service for everyone.

Department for Energy Security and Net Zero

Online meeting, 7pm, 27 February: solidarity strikes with NHS workers


An online public meeting, organised by Free Our Unions and NHS Workers Say No

7pm, Monday 27 February

Log in via Zoom here.

During the great NHS strikes of 1982 and 1988, hundreds of thousands of non-health workers – steel workers, postal workers, teachers, car workers, council workers, firefighters and many others – went on strike to support NHS workers’ demands. But in 1990 the Tories banned such solidarity action – and the tradition of it has faded.

Today, when strikes are on the rise, including in the NHS, and there is vast public support for health workers, could we see such action again? Is it possible given the anti-union laws? How can we get round those laws, and fight to overturn them?

What can we learn from the tremendous solidarity strikes of 1982 and 1988 and the longer tradition of such action – and are there any practical implications for our struggles now?

Speakers:
• Pete Radcliff, who as a steel worker organised / took part in NHS solidarity strikes in 1982
• Holly Johnston, NHS Workers Say No

Facebook event here

RMT Bakerloo branch calls for a national demo: pass a motion in your branch!

The Bakerloo line branch of the RMT union has passed a resolution calling for their national union to call a Saturday demonstration against the threat of new anti-strike laws. The text of their resolution is below, followed by a more general motion for wider use.

Please consider submitting it in your union branch.


This branch notes the ongoing strike wave, and the Tories’ plans to impose new anti-union laws in response. This branch further notes historic RMT AGM policy to call a national demonstration against anti-union laws.

This branch believes the protest called by RMT on 16 January was a good start, and must be followed up with further action, including a national demonstration.

This branch therefore calls for the RMT to organise a Saturday national demonstration against anti-strike laws, taking place no later than 19 June 2023 (the anniversary of the start of our union’s strikes on national rail), with the following demands in line with union policy:

– No to new anti-strike laws
– Repeal all existing anti-strike and anti-union legislation
– For a full right to organise and strike
– Solidarity with all striking workers

This branch believes the demonstration should be co-organised with as wide a coalition of other unions as possible, but by RMT directly if necessary.


Notes:
1. The seriousness of the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, which would ban all-out strikes in a range of important sectors (not just transport).
2. That this comes on top of over a dozen anti-strike and anti-union laws passed since 1980.

Further Notes:
1. Demonstrations called by the RMT at Downing Street on 16 and 30 January.
2. The national day of action called by the TUC against the anti-strike laws on 1 February, in parallel with a mass strike of over 500,000 workers across multiple industries.

Believes:
1. The labour movement must organise specific campaigning, at local and national level, against the Bill. An assertive campaign, conducted in parallel with and through the ongoing strike wave, could force the Tories to back down. And, even if the Bill is implemented, we will be in a stronger position to resist and defy its restrictions if we have spent the period prior to implementation organising active opposition to it.
2. This must include an urgent national demonstration specifically on this issue, in London, on a Saturday, with a serious attempt to mobilise at least tens of thousands.

Resolves:
1. To discuss what action we can take locally, by ourselves and working with other unions.
2. To call on our union to call a national demonstration to stop the anti-strike Bill, in London, on a Saturday, soon, working with other unions as much as possible.
3. To call for, and push for our union and the whole movement to call for, repeal of all the anti-union laws.

Add your support: for a national demonstration against anti-strike laws

As part of our efforts to mobilise rank-and-file trade unionists to push for our unions to call a national demonstration against anti-strike laws, we have launched a petition on change.org.

Add your name here.


Please consider submitting a motion calling for a national demonstration in your own trade union:

Call a national demonstration against the new anti-strike law!

Notes:
1. The seriousness of the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, which would ban all-out strikes in a range of important sectors (not just transport).
2. That this comes on top of over a dozen anti-strike and anti-union laws passed since 1980.

Believes:
1. That we need a flowering of local action to stop the Bill, and national action too.
2. That unions should call an urgent national demonstration specifically on this issue, in London, on a Saturday, making a serious attempt to mobilise at least tens of thousands.

Resolves:
1. To discuss what action we can take locally, by ourselves and working with other unions.
2. To call on our union to call a national demonstration to stop the anti-strike Bill, in London, on a Saturday, soon, working with other unions as much as possible.
3. To call for, and push for our union and the whole movement to call for, repeal of all the anti-union laws.

Don’t cross a picket line – join one!

Throughout the current strike wave, misinformation and disinformation has circulated – usually from employers, but sometimes from union officials too – about our rights in multi-union workplaces/industries where one or several, but not all, unions are striking. Some union officials have effectively instructed members to cross the picket lines of other unions.

Free Our Unions produced this leaflet, which we distributed on picket lines and at rallies on the 1 February strike, to counter this misinformation, and as a contribution to efforts to rebuild cultures of solidarity in which refusal to cross picket lines is the default instinct. An updated version will be available for use beyond 1 February.

After the mass strike and day of action: Free Our Unions open organising meeting, 7pm, 7 February

After the mass strike and TUC day of action against new anti-strike laws on 1 February, join us to discuss next steps in the fight against the Tories’ plans for new restrictions on the right to strike.

Our next organising meeting, open to all supporters of the campaign, will take place on Tuesday 7 February, at 7pm.

Log in via Zoom here, or by using:

Meeting ID: 835 3823 9276
Passcode: 683428

We need discussion and planning, not just rallies

An attendee reports on the 24 January “Defend the Right to Strike” meeting called by Strike Map, the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom, and others, which was billed as an “action planning” meeting as well as a rally.

We very much need spaces in which we can consider, debate and decide on how to take forward the fight against the Tories’ assault on the right to strike, and push for the broad labour movement to take it forward. Unfortunately, this really wasn’t one.

I don’t write this in order to score points or “get one over” on anyone. If we are going to seriously fight back against this attack, our movement needs to do better.

I find myself reaching for the word “talking shop”. But in fact, the meeting wasn’t even a talking shop, i.e., an opportunity for participants to put forward opinions and ideas.

After several top-table speakers, there was half an hour given over to smallish breakout groups – but followed by another hour-plus of speakers, not collective whole-meeting discussion, let alone decision-making. “We look forward to reading your ideas later”, said the chair. In other words the breakout groups functioned to give a (very thin) illusion of participation, taking up time while providing no opportunity to shape the meeting or indeed anything.

We gave out a Free Our Unions leaflet calling for a national demonstration to stop the minimum service bill, based on this article. There was no way to put this idea to the meeting as such, except to mention it in breakout groups.

The meeting was similar to the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom and Institute of Employment Rights conference in the same venue in December; about a hundred people there; mainly an older crowd; with some representation from union reps and officers. Still, those hundred people could have usefully discussed what kind of action is needed and possible. Perhaps such discussion is outside the organisers’ comfort zone, or habitual way of functioning.

Instead of discussion, we had top-table speech after top-table speech about what’s wrong with the Tories, about the importance of strikes and about how the minimum service bill is bad. The last was actually the most useful element of the meeting, since Keith Ewing and John Hendy explained very clearly and informatively the draconian and sweeping nature of the Tories’ attack on the right to strike.

Several speakers said things along the lines of “We must fight this by every means available”, but without actually suggesting anything beyond the raising the issue, as proposed by the TUC, on the 1 February strike day. No speaker even hinted at a national demonstration against the bill.

RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch seemed to fall back to the narrative that was dominant in the unions before the bill was published, namely that if passes, well, we will fight harder in our struggles. He said the bill was certain to pass. Now, it may well be the case it passes, even given a much bigger campaign. And we should certainly work to get past and, where possible, defy all anti-strike laws. But, in practice if not in intention, this is fatalism parading as militancy.

The Tories are introducing these new restrictions for a reason, just as they had reason to introduce all the previous restrictions – which did, have and do continue to have an impact. Straightforward defiance of new restrictions is necessary, but it may not be easy or always effective – even more than with current restrictions (it’s also not clear that anyone is proposing a clear plan for defiance). We should do our best to stop the new law. And even if we fail in that, a strong and vibrant campaign will put us in a better position to not be intimidated, minimise the impact of new restrictions, defy as much as possible, and eventually win repeal.

By itself, a national demonstration is not going to stop this attack. But having one is necessary to building a serious campaign. Free Our Unions will continue to agitate for it to happen.

There was also very little mention of what the labour movement should demand in terms of repealing anti-union laws and in terms of positive legal rights. In a stumbling and not very radical way, Prison Officers Association general secretary Steve Gillan was actually the only one to raise this issue, rightly pointing out that winning repeal depends on a Labour government and that “we need to hold Labour to account on this”.

Unfortunately, in addition to not advocating anything concrete to achieve that, Gillan wrongly claimed that Labour’s “New Deal for Workers” commits to “repealing all anti-union laws” (his exact words). In fact it doesn’t say that, not even on paper – on the right to strike it is vague. But an organised fight to demand and win this commitment is certainly necessary. The fact the 24 January meeting avoided that discussion, too, was another thing that made it a missed opportunity.


Join Free Our Unions at our next open organising meeting on Tuesday 7 February, 7pm. Details here.

Rally and planing meeting, 24 January (called by CTUF, StrikeMap, and others)

The Campaign for Trade Union Freedom has called a rally and planning meeting for activity against anti-strike laws on 24 January, 6pm at the National Education Union HQ in central London (see here for details).

Free Our Unions supports this meeting and encourages activists to attend.

With 12 top-table speakers currently billed, the event seems to be more rally than planning meeting. We hope that a substantial amount of time in the meeting will be reserved for discussion and planning.