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!”
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!”
Education workers in Ontario, Canada, are facing down repressive anti-union laws imposed by the province’s right-wing government. The following article, reposted from the Guardian (3 November), gives the background.
We’ll be publishing further info on how we can support the workers soon.
The premier of Canada’s most populous province is under fire for a “draconian” bill that would fine school support staff C$4,000 (US$2,900) a day for striking, prompting concerns that Ontario is eroding fundamental workers’ rights – and setting a troubling precedent.
Doug Ford’s conservative government tabled legislation this week that would unilaterally impose a contract on education workers, and levy hefty fines for striking. The move escalates a bitter dispute over pay for education workers, including custodians, early childhood educators and educational assistants.
Justin Trudeau has waded into the standoff, the prime minister sharply criticizing the Ontario government decision to “suspend people’s rights and freedoms”.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents 55,000 education workers, has called for an 11.3% raise for its workers – often the lowest-paid in schools – arguing that stagnant wage growth and high inflation have hit the lowest earners hardest.
The government has countered with a 2.5% annual raise for the lowest-income workers and 1.5% raises for others.
With little progress on negotiations and a strike planned on Friday, the government fast-tracked Bill 28.
If passed, the controversial legislation – which fines workers C$4,000 a day and the union C$500,000 for striking – would mark the first time in the county’s history that the right of workers to collectively bargain and to strike could be legally stripped away.
The government acknowledges its bill breaches the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Human Rights Code, but says its priority is averting a strike.
Ontario’s government is invoking a rarely used legal mechanism known as the notwithstanding clause, which allows provincial governments to override certain portions of the charter for a five-year time period.
Quebec has long used the clause to pass its language rights laws, but most governments have been hesitant to use the mechanism, said constitutional lawyer Ewa Krajewska.
“The Ford government has been much quicker to reach for the clause and the worry from a constitutional rights perspective is that it’s becoming increasingly normalized to invoke it,” she said. “And I’m concerned that every time there’s a bit of a blow-up about rights and legislation, the government is just going to invoke the notwithstanding clause. The fact that they’re willing to go to it so quickly should give everyone pause.”
Canada’s justice minister called it “exceedingly problematic”, but Krajewska says there is little the federal government can do to stop it.
Lawyers say they are also troubled by the government’s pre-emptive use of the clause which would shield Bill 28 from judicial review.
“The Ford government is essentially saying it is above the law. This is not just an attack on the fundamental charter rights, human rights and labor rights of education workers. It’s also an attack on our constitutional democracy and the rule of law,” said Adrienne Telford, a constitutional and labour lawyer.
Canada’s top court recognised workers’ right to strike in 2015. In cases where employees are deemed essential, the right to strike is replaced by arbitration.
Telford said that Ontario’s attempt to unilaterally impose a contract and working conditions was even more worrying.
“Workers weren’t even allowed to exercise their right to strike. It’s pre-emptively taken that away. But what’s even more shocking is that the government isn’t replacing their fundamental right to strike with the right to arbitration,” she said. “Basically, this is an attempt by the government to avoid having to appear before an independent arbitrator and not get what it wants.”
Ford has long styled himself as a champion of the working class, but the row has prompted one union that previously endorsed him to call for the premier to reverse course.
Earlier this week, a branch of Labourers’ International Union North America, Canada’s largest construction union, lobbied the province’s education minister to restore collective bargaining rights.
The Ontario Bar Association also condemned the move, calling the uncertainty surrounding fundamental rights “potentially destabilizing” and prompting fears the short term gains won by Ford’s government could come at a cost to society “that might not be recognised until it’s too late”.
“In theory, governments could just include the notwithstanding clause in every piece of legislation that they have,” said Telford. “What is the point of fundamental rights and freedoms if they can just be pre-emptively and overridden – and shielded from review by a court?”
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Free Our Unions is organising action to stop new anti-union laws – and for a coordinated national campaign against this threat and against existing anti-union laws, led by our unions.
To effectively build towards this, we need increased resources. We are looking to raise £2,000. Will you chip in to help us reach our goal?
The Tory threat
Since the Summer, the UK Government has floated proposals for dangerous new anti-union laws. The Tories have already enabled bosses to use agency workers to break strikes. They sat back while P&O sacked 800 workers in one day.
Now they are bringing in legislation to ban all-out transport strikes – and very clear this is just the first step in a whole raft of new anti-strike laws.
The Tories are divided amongst themselves but absolutely united in attacking strikes, unions and the working class.
They are pushing for:
• So-called ‘minimum service levels’ in certain industries – essentially forcing unions to scab on their members
• Forcing unions to ballot members on every single pay offer bosses make – enabling employers to string workers along and delay strike action
• Raising ballot thresholds even further to make strike action within the law
• Other, onerous bureaucratic restrictions aimed at making strike action increasingly difficult to organise within the law
We cannot sit back while the Tories launch yet more attacks on our democratic rights as workers.
We need to organise NOW
Our right to organise and strike is under attack right now.
This threat cannot be defeated through legal action or conference speeches alone. And our movement cannot wait for these new anti-union laws to be introduced before we fight back.
Free Our Unions is calling on our trade unions to rise to the challenge and launch a popular, national campaign to grab public attention and assert our right to organise.
If we fight hard now, we stand the best chance of stopping these attacks, defying them if they do pass, and getting them repealed – or some combination of those things. If we don’t find, there is a greater danger these laws will come in and stick.
The cost-of-living emergency is only getting worse. Meanwhile, unions are growing in popularity and public prominence. Now is the time to make the case openly for strong, free and independent working class organisations free of bureaucratic legal constraints.
In response to these new threats, Free Our Unions has already produced briefings and campaign materials, hosted fringes at Labour Party Conference and TUC Congress, sent speakers around the country, and held the first demonstration nationally against the Tories’ new anti-union threats. All of which was expensive.
And there is so much more to do. Despite the growing strike wave, so much of our movement isn’t confronting the threat of new anti-union laws head on.
Free Our Unions needs your help if we are going to step up our activity. If we reach our target of £2,000, we will:
• Produce more copies of our accessible briefings informing rank-and-file members about the dangers of these new threats and send them out
• Produce an updated pamphlet on campaigning to overturn the anti-union laws
• Send speakers and campaign materials to union branches, local political parties, and other organisations to build momentum behind our campaign
• Organise more protests at sites of power to bring this issue to the top of the labour movement agenda
• Campaign for our union officials to live up to their rhetoric and launch a national campaign against the anti-union laws
Any donation, however small, makes a difference. But £20 could enable us to print hundreds of leaflets. £50 or £60 could enable us to print thousands, or get speakers to meetings around the country. Two or three hundred will allow us organise a second, bigger protest, or produce a new campaigning pamphlet. If we reach our target, we can look further ahead – and potentially look to organise more powerful events, like training and organising events.
Please chip in to help us reach our target, and then join our campaign.
Around 80 activists from a range of campaign groups and unions protested outside the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) on 10 October, as part of an action called by Free Our Unions and Earth Strike UK’s Empower the Unions initiative. As far as we know, this is the first piece of direct action called specifically to protest the Truss government’s plans for new anti-union laws since Truss revealed the policy.
BEIS was chosen because it will likely be central to developing the legislation for new restrictions on strikes, and because it is a key department in terms of climate policy. Free Our Unions has sought active coordination with activists from the climate movement, and Earth Strike UK’s Empower the Unions initiative seeks to highlight the specific ways in which anti-union laws constrain workers’ ability to take action in defence of the climate.
Speakers at the protest included Mark Boothroyd (A&E nurse and Unite activist); Sab (Earth Strike UK activist and Industrial Workers of the World organier); Ruth Cashman (Lambeth Unison); Jared Wood (RMT London Transport Regional Organiser); Ria Patel (Green Party Equality and Diversity spokesperson); EC (PCS rep); Andy Warren (firefighter and local rep for the FBU); Hamish (Exctinction Rebellion Trade Unionists); and Benedict Flexen (Earth Strike UK: Empower the Unions).
Speeches were punctuated by chanting, accompanied by drumming from the Extinction Rebellion samba band.
Following the protest, an assembly took place in a venue nearby, discussing various aspects of the politics of anti-union laws, and proposals for campaigning on the issue forward in our workplaces and unions.
We’re holding a fringe meeting at the rescheduled TUC congress in Brighton. The meeting will take place at 6pm in the Friends Meeting House (Ship Street, BN1 1AF).
We’ll discuss what unions can do to resist the implementation of new anti-union laws, and campaign against existing ones. Speakers include John Leach (Assistant General Secretary, RMT) and Maria Exall (CWU), with more tbc.
All congress delegates and labour movement activists welcome!
5:30, Monday 10 October
Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), 1 Victoria Street, London SW1H 0ET
Facebook event here.
On 10 October the Free Our Unions campaign and Earth Strike / Empower the Unions are holding an assembly and protest at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in London to oppose the threat of new anti-trade union laws that Liz Truss, in the context of the strike wave, has signalled as one of her top priorities.
We are also demanding the scrapping of all existing anti-union laws and their replacement with strong workers’ rights. We demand the right to strike and picket freely, including in solidarity with other workers and over political issues like the climate crisis.
We are in the midst of a cost of living crisis, ecological crisis, and facing new attacks on workers rights by the ruling class. New and existing anti-union laws prevent us from legally taking strike action on issues relating to social and environmental issues. We need to empower our union to challenge and abolish these laws or break them.
The wider trade union and labour movement needs to mobilise to stop these new laws. We will be organising protests to get the ball rolling.
Join us at BEIS on 10 October. For more information or to add your support to the protest email email@example.com
Free Our Unions is hosting a fringe meeting at the upcoming Labour Party conference. The meeting will take place from 7:30-9pm at The Liverpool pub, 14 James St, Liverpool L2 7PQ.
We’ll be discussing how the labour movement can resist existing and proposed anti-union laws, and how Labour activists and Labour-affiliated unions can organise to ensure the Labour Party commits to repealing all anti-union laws when next in government.
Riccardo La Torre (National Officer, Fire Brigades Union)
Bell Ribeiro-Addy (Labour MP for Streatham)
Tony Byrne (Secretary and conference delegate, Newark CLP and chair, RMT East Midlands Central branch)
…with more tbc.
We hope to see you there.
The following article, written by Free Our Unions co-organiser Daniel Randall, was published in Scottish Left Review, and can be read online here.
[During her election campaign] PM Liz Truss announced a raft of new anti-strike laws she plans to introduce if elected. This includes: i) action within 30 days of taking office to introduce the ‘minimum service requirement’ outlawing all-out transport strikes that the Tories pledged in their 2019 manifesto for transport – but extended to other sectors too; ii) doubling the minimum notice period for strikes from two to four weeks; iii) raising the ‘double threshold’ for strikes, currently applicable in certain ‘essential’ sectors, from 40% of the whole eligible membership voting ‘yes’ to 50%, and extending the ‘double threshold’ to the whole economy; iv) some sort of ‘cooling off period’ meaning unions cannot strike at will after a ballot mandate; and v) outlawing or restricting strike pay. Shortly afterwards, Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, announced his own 16-point plan to restrict strikes, much of it overlapping with Truss’s proposals.
Effective workplace organisation and strikes are already heavily restricted being what Tony Blair once proudly called ‘the most restrictive union laws in the western world’. Truss and Shapps’ proposals would substantially reduce strikes from a leveraging of workers’ power to token protests, with limited impact.
We cannot afford to repeat the campaign against the Trade Union Act 2016, a largely desultory affair culminating in a single national rally and parliamentary lobby. Truss is, of course, responding to a rising tide of class struggle and pandering to the reactionary core of the Tory base by promising to stem it. But Truss’ opportunism also results, in part, because of our movement’s failure to maintain meaningful ongoing agitation against existing anti-strike laws that she feels confident to propose such sweeping and extensive new restrictions.
Several union general secretaries have spoken strongly about campaigns of resistance to the Tories’ threats. RMT general secretary, Mick Lynch, has rightly emphasised the extent to which Truss’s plans are an attack on democracy. A society in which workers do not have freedom to organise and take action at work is, in effect, a dictatorship of the boss class. The most immediate thing unions can do to resist is continue, intensify, and coordinate existing campaigns of strikes. But specific action that raises demands against the introduction of new anti-strike laws, and for abolishing existing ones, is also necessary.
Lynch has also said he ‘would be looking for a general strike, if we can bring that off’, in response to the threats. CWU general secretary, Dave Ward, told a workers’ picket line on Friday 29 July that he had spoken with Lynch and UNITE and GMB general secretaries, saying ‘we believe it is time now to consider calling for forms of collective action that every worker … can participate in.’
Although the proposals lack clarity, their sentiment is welcome. But calls for radical action are not much use if they are only calls. Unions have it within their power to immediately begin organising action against the proposals. National and local demonstrations, for example, will not by themselves stop new laws but they can contribute to a wider campaign that could. We must avoid a situation where union leaders call for militant, but more distant, forms of action, whilst failing to organise immediate campaigning. Organisation and mobilisation around immediate action is necessary to make the more militant and explosive forms of action, including those that directly defy the laws, realisable.
The RMT, Unite, GMB and PCS unions as well as the TUC, have specific policies, passed or renewed since the 2019 general election, committing them to organise campaigning against anti-union laws. RMT’s and Unite’s policies explicitly resolve to work with other unions to call demonstrations against both the existing laws, and the Tories’ 2019 manifesto commitment to impose minimum service levels during transport strikes. Labour Party activists must also organise to extract commitments from the party leadership to repeal anti-strike laws in government, in accordance with Labour conference policy. Lobbies and protests on this issue at upcoming Labour and Tory conferences also seem an obvious step.
There are also opportunities for unions to confront existing laws, even short of outright defiance. For example, striking unions can highlight the pay demands of other groups of workers, as some RMT leaders have already begun to do. This would not directly violate the law against unions striking for ‘political’ demands, or the prohibition on striking in solidarity with other workers, but could highlight the injustice of those laws and perhaps test their limits. RMT also has policy from its 2021 AGM committing the union to ‘non-complicity’ in setting minimum service levels.
The Free Our Unions campaign plans to contact unions that support us, and campaigns such as the Institute for Employment Rights and the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom, which are also active on this issue, to discuss joint activity and national campaigning.
Some in the movement have argued that, with no immediate prospect of electing a government likely to repeal the laws, we should focus on organising to defy them rather than campaigning for their repeal. But not only are the two things not counterposed, one is a prerequisite for the other. A concerted national campaign that confronts the laws, demanding their abolition and replacement with a full, legally-enshrined right to strike, can help us develops the courage and confidence to directly defy them.
We hope to reschedule our planned fringe for the rearranged TUC congress, from 18-20 October.
Free Our Unions will meet regularly throughout August and September to discuss and plan activity to resist threats of new anti-union laws, and build campaigning against existing ones.
All supporters of our campaign are welcome. Join us on Wednesday 7 September at 7pm.
Click here for the Facebook event.
Log in via Zoom here
Meeting ID: 835 3823 9276
We’ve produced a briefing for trade union activists on Liz Truss’s plans for new anti-strike laws. Please download, print, and circulate in your workplace. The briefing is also available in booklet form here.