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!”

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!”

As Tories reassert anti-strike law threat, unions must resist

In response to the RMT’s national ballot of workers in Network Rail and 15 mainline Train Operating Companies, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has said the government will accelerate plans for new laws to restrict transport workers’ strikes.

The plan is not new: the Tories’ 2019 manifesto included a commitment to implement the laws, which would impose a legally-mandated “minimum service” during transport strikes. The law was in the first Queen’s Speech in February 2020, and although the pandemic re-callibrated government priorities, when Business Secretary Alok Sharma was asked in July 2020 if the government still planned to introduce the laws, he confirmed they did. In September 2020, a statement launched by Free Our Unions saw seven Labour MPs and dozens of trade union officials and activists commit to a renewed campaign against both the existing anti-union laws, and proposed new ones.

At its October 2021 AGM, rail and transport union RMT passed a motion committing the union to a policy of non-compliance should “minimum service” laws be imposed. That would be a radical step, and would require the rest of the labour movement to rally round the RMT.

In the same month, Unite’s conference passed a motion reaffirming its opposition to all anti-strike laws, both existing and proposed. This motion also resolved to call on the TUC to organise a national demonstration against the laws, and to organise one directly via a “coalition of the willing” if the TUC did not.

The June 2021 congress of the GMB, Britain’s third biggest union, also passed comprehensive policy opposing anti-strike laws, and resolving to pursue joint-union campaigning against them. Labour Party and TUC conferences also have existing policy supporting the abolition of existing anti-strike laws, and opposing the imposition of new ones.

The Telegraph article which included Shapps’ remarks also included the announcement of plans to encourage teachers to bring lawyers or arbitrators with them to disciplinary hand grievance hearings, rather than union reps: we also need to be ready to resist new laws restricting unions’ role in workplace procedures.

The general secretaries of Unite, RMT, and TSSA have all made strong press statements in response to Shapps’ comments. We need grassroots resistance too.

Free Our Unions can send speakers to meetings and protests. We will be producing additional materials and resources in the coming weeks to help rank-and-file trade union activists organise against new restrictions on our rights.

Welwyn walkout shows how workers can win

By a Free Our Unions supporter

On 10 May, refuse workers in the Hertfordshire town of Welwyn Hatfield launched an unofficial strike to deal with a manager they said was sexist, racist, and bullying.

A hundred refuse, recycling, and maintenance workers employed by commercial waste contractor Urbaser, members of Unite, refused to work and made it clear they would not go back until the manager went.

A report in Socialist Worker quotes workers vividly describing the manager’s behaviour and how their workplace has been run. Workers also described how outsourcing had made their situation at work much worse. Union campaigns for insourcing have won important victories; this demand needs taking up and fighting for by the whole labour movement, including the Labour Party.

Workers signed a grievance letter and the manager was sent home while an investigation took place; but the investigation was not serious and the manager was set to return. The workers decided to walk out, stopped bin collections and gathered outside the council offices to discuss where to go next. And they won – the manager is gone.

This small strike demonstrates in miniature some hugely important things – including the power workers when they take action with determination and militancy, including power to challenge oppression. And the fact that effective workers’ action will very often mean not going through the hoops set up by the anti-union laws. As one striker said: “We knew what we were doing was an unofficial walkout and that it was illegal, but we all felt so strongly we knew we had to do it.”

Between the General Strike of 1926 and the 1966 seamen’s strike, there were no national strikes in the UK. There were large and growing numbers of smaller disputes, often extremely small local ones, in which workers took direct action with no or little reference to their national union, just walking out to bring their managers or bosses to heel.

One factor is that there were no anti-union laws of the sort introduced after 1979. Unions did not need to clear multiple procedural and bureaucratic hurdles to declare official action; they could decide to simply declare unofficial action official; local union organisations often had much greater leeway to make their own decisions; and all this helped the creation of both powerful working-class militancy and a situation in which it was very hard for bosses to treat even wildcat action as something illegitimate.

Like other small disputes in recent years, the Welwyn Hatfield workers’ action – refusing to buckle under to the anti-union laws – shows the way for workers to deal with the dire and mounting problems we face. At the same time, it shows the need for a concerted campaign to scrap the anti-union laws, all of them, to create the best possible conditions for such action to thrive.

Online meeting, Tuesday 17 May, 7pm: Why the fight against climate change needs free trade unions

In October 2021, Free Our Unions collaborated with Earth Strike’s “Empower the Unions” initiative to launch a statement calling for joint struggle between the labour and climate movements against anti-strike laws which constrain workers’ ability to fight for radical action on the environment.

This online meeting, co-sponsored by Free Our Unions, Earth Strike: Empower the Unions, and Extinction Rebellion Trade Unionists, brings together labour and environmental activists to discuss how that struggle can be built.

Tuesday 17 May, 7pm
Log in via Zoom here

Meeting ID: 889 6629 5409
Passcode: 850587

The meeting is also co-sponsored by a number of the other organisations with signed the October 2021 statement: Green Party Trade Union GroupCampaign Against Climate Change Trade Union GroupWorkers’ LibertyAnti-Capitalist ResistanceScot E3

Momentum Policy Primary motion calls for repeal of all anti-union laws

Momentum, the left-wing organisation in the Labour Party, is conducting its second annual policy primary, to determine which motions Momentum will encourage members to submit to CLPs for submission to Labour conference.

The Fire Brigades Union and North Essex Momentum have submitted the motion below, reaffirming previous conference policy calling for the repeal of all anti-union laws.

The motions for the policy primary can be found here. Momentum members can vote for their preferred motions electronically.

Advancing Workers’ Agenda by Repealing All Anti-Trade Union Laws

Decades of anti-trade union laws have interfered with unions’ ability to organise and caused mass redistribution of wealth from workers to the wealthy; years of cuts and a lack of investment in public services, and now they want workers to pay for the costs of the pandemic.

The pandemic has amplified the need for workers to be in unions to guarantee health and safety and working conditions. Job cuts, attacks on terms and conditions, “fire and rehire” and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill are all direct attacks on the labour movement and should be called out publicly, opposed and challenged by the Labour Party leadership and the entire movement.

Conference condemns the disgraceful treatment of refuse collection drivers by Labour representatives in Coventry. Conference commits to always supporting striking workers.

Conference notes TUC policy that workers be: “represented by an independent union; strike/take industrial action by a process, at a time, and for demands of their own choosing, including in solidarity with any other workers, and for broader social and political goals; and picket freely.”

Conference commits to repealing all anti-union laws and commits to their replacement with a code of labour rights using the proposals set out in Labour’s 2017 and 2019 Manifestos. This commitment includes repealing anti-strike laws, such as the ban on striking in solidarity with other workers or political issues; preventing workers from taking action directly over climate change, NHS and equalities.

Conference demands the Party actively enforce trade union membership amongst all Party members.

Submitted by Momentum North Essex and FBU

Word count: 250

Solidarity with P&O workers! Defy the anti-union laws, and fight for their abolition!

By a Free Our Unions supporter

The disgraceful sacking of 800 P&O ferries workers, and the subsequent union campaign to reverse it, show the abject inadequacy and weakness of existing employment legislation.

P&O took their action in the full knowledge that it broke employment law. In the face of recent government threats to legislate to force them to reinstate the workers, they have refused to back down. And while bosses have flagrantly broken the law, so far without direct consequence, workers attempting to resist the injustice remain constrained by “the most restrictive union laws in the western world.”

Solidarity action by dock workers in Holland delayed the launching of a P&O vessel. Dockers elsewhere have said they will take similar action. But any workers looking to take this kind of action in the UK will have to do so in defiance of this country’s anti-union legislation, which has, since 1991, outlawed workers taking action in solidarity with other workers.

If workers do bravely defy those laws, the whole labour movement must rally round them. Free Our Unions has campaigned for the Labour Party to fight for the policy passed by successive party conferences, for the repeal of all anti-union and anti-strike laws. When Labour leaders mention the issue, rare enough in itself, they usually focus only on repealing the most recent set of laws, the Trade Union Act of 2016 which imposed ballot turnout thresholds. But in the wake of the P&O sackings, the injustice of the older anti-union laws is harder to ignore.

East Hull’s Labour MP Karl Turner, by no means on the left of the party, has said the last Labour government “should have overturned every anti-trade union law.”:

Left-wing Labour MP Richard Burgon has also used the moment to call for the abolition of anti-union laws and the right to take solidarity action:

RMT, one of the two trade unions representing P&O workers, is a supporter of Free Our Unions, as well as other groups that campaign on the issue, including the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom and the Institute for Employment Rights. With Tory plans for new anti-strike laws set to target transport workers, now is surely the time to act on union policy, shared by other unions such as Unite, to call a national demonstration against the anti-union laws.

TUC Disabled Workers’ Conference fringe meeting, 22 March, 11:30: Disabled People for Free Trade Unions!

Free Our Unions is co-sponsoring a fringe meeting, along with the RMT’s Disabled Members Advisory Committee, at the forthcoming TUC Disabled Workers’ Conference.

The meeting will take place on Tuesday 22 March, at 11:30, via Zoom.

Speakers include:

• Janine Booth, RMT Disabled Members Advisory Committee and Free Our Unions
• Sarah Woolley, General Secretary, Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU)
• John McDonnell, Labour MP, Hayes and Harlington

The meeting is open to people who aren’t delegates to the TUC conference. Register to attend here.

Birkbeck UCU says: free our unions!

The University and College Union (UCU) branch at Birkbeck, University of London, has become the latest trade union branch to support the Free Our Unions campaign. Birkbeck UCU will also be sending a motion to UCU’s Congress which aims to commit the union to active campaigning on the issue of anti-union and anti-strike laws.

Free Our Unions recently participated in a teach-out at a Birkbeck UCU picket line, with Birkbeck worker and UCU NEC member-elect Rhian Keyse and RMT activist Daniel Randall leading a discussion.

Birkbeck UCU strikers and supporters, including UCU NEC member-elect Rhian Keyse, with Free Our Unions co-organiser and RMT rep Daniel Randall, following a Free Our Unions teach-out at the Birkbeck picket line on 28 February

The motion the branch passed, and their submission to congress, are below. Why not pass something similar in your union branch?

Campaign to repeal all anti-trade union laws

This branch notes:

1. The impact of anti-union laws inhibiting our and other workers’ recent struggles.
2. The threat of new “minimum service” legislation during transport strikes (which could be extended to other sectors).
3. 2019 Congress policy reiterating opposition to ALL anti-trade union laws.
4. That TUC Congress and Labour conference voted to campaign to repeal all anti-union laws and their replacement with positive workers’ rights, including strong rights to strike and picket. However this has remained on paper.

This branch believes:

1. That workers cannot fight disputes with our hands tied behind our backs.
2. That UCU should campaign strongly on these issues.

This branch resolves:

1. To bring a motion (Appendix 1 below) to Congress 2022 calling on UCU to strengthen its campaigns on anti-union laws.
2. To affiliate to the Free Our Unions campaign.

Appendix 1 – Draft Congress Motion: Campaign to repeal all anti-trade union laws

Congress notes

1. The impact of anti-union laws inhibiting our and other workers’ recent struggles.
2. The threat of new “minimum service” legislation during transport strikes (which could be extended to other sectors).
3. 2019 Congress policy reiterating opposition to ALL anti-trade union laws.
4. That TUC Congress and Labour conference voted to campaign to repeal all anti-union laws and their replacement with positive workers’ rights, including strong rights to strike and picket. However this has remained on paper.

Congress resolves:

1. To start campaigning, actively and vocally, for the repeal of and resistance to ALL anti-union laws and for a strong right to strike, including by: producing a leaflet; organising a week of action; organising an activists’ day school; and a joint union conference
2. To stand in solidarity with RMT, which has pledged to defy any “minimum service requirement”, and to support their campaigns against this legislation.

Give workers who refuse to unload Russian fuel legal back-up: repeal the anti-union laws!

Shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh has written to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps about the inspiring action of dockers who’ve blocked Russian oil and gas coming into the UK.

Haigh says:

“There is a real risk under existing laws that for taking a brave moral stand, trade unionists could risk litigation or other action for refusing to handle Russian cargo.

“I urge you to guarantee their protection, with legal changes if necessary, and act to ensure they do not pay the price for standing up for what is right.”

The reason that there is legal jeopardy is that for workers’ action to be protected, it must have trade union endorsement. And under the relevant “existing laws”, the Thatcherite anti-union laws, it is illegal for unions to endorse:

a) industrial action without a postal ballot (1984 Trade Union Act); and

b) industrial action for anything but narrowly-defined industrial issues (1982 Employment Act).

The tenor of Haigh’s comments is broadly welcome – but it’s not at all clear what she’s advocating.

The only consistent way to deal with this problem, also necessary for the interests of the working class and labour movement generally, is to repeal all the anti-union laws (and replace them with a strong legal right to strike), so that workers can take action when, how and for whatever reasons we see fit.

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.

“Liberal” MLAs block repeal of laws restricting workers’ freedoms

Disappointing news from Stormont, where socialist MLA Gerry Carroll’s Trade Union Freedom Bill fell on 1 March by just five votes.

The bill would have repealed Tory anti-union and anti-strike laws in Northern Ireland. Had Alliance Party MLAs backed it, it would have passed. Alliance claims to be a “liberal” party, but its MLAs appear to be “liberals” who support state restrictions on basic liberties such as the right to withdraw one’s labour.

The labour movement must continue to campaign for the demands of the bill.

Click here to read our interview with Gerry Carroll about the bill.