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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!”

Next organising meeting: 7pm, 17 August

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 17 August at 7pm.

Log in via Zoom here

Meeting ID: 835 3823 9276
Passcode: 683428

MODEL MOTION: Organise against Truss’s anti-strike threats

Over the coming weeks, we’ll be producing material for activists to use in campaigning against Liz Truss’s threatened new anti-strike laws. We encourage supporters to pass this model motion in their union branches. If you pass the motion, and/or if you want a Free Our Unions speaker to attend a meeting of your union branch or committee, let us know by emailing freeourunions@gmail.com.


This branch notes prospective Prime Minister Liz Truss’s plans for severe new restrictions on the right to strike, including:

• Action within thirty days of taking office to introduce the “minimum service requirement” outlawing all-out strikes in certain sectors that the Tories pledged in their 2019 manifesto for transport – but extended to other sectors too.
• Doubling the minimum notice period for strikes from two to four weeks;
• Raising the threshold for strikes in certain “essential” sectors from 40% of the whole eligible membership voting to 50% and extending this to the whole economy;
• Some sort of “cooling off period” meaning unions cannot strike at will after a ballot mandate;
• Outlawing or restricting strike pay.

This branch notes that Britain already has what Tony Blair once proudly called “the most restrictive union laws in the western world.”

This branch believes these new restrictions would further criminalise effective trade unionism. The whole labour movement must resist. That resistance must not only focus on threatened new laws, but must demand the abolition of all existing restrictions on the right to organise and strike, and their replacement with a positive charter of union rights.

This branch therefore resolves:

• To produce a briefing for members explaining the threatened new laws, and the scale of existing restrictions
• To hold a meeting to plan action around this issue, inviting speakers from campaigns active on the issue, including Free Our Unions
• To work with others, via the local Trades Council [where possible/appropriate] to organise wider local campaigning, including plans for direct action such as demonstrations
• [Where unions have existing policy to organise action: To request that our NEC urgently enacts existing policy to organise action, including national demonstrations, against anti-union and anti-strike laws]
• [Where unions do not have existing policy to support a national demonstration: To support calls for a national demonstration on this issue, and work with other unions to organise this]
• [For Labour-affiliated unions: To raise this issue within Labour Party structures, demanding Labour commits to repealing the laws when next in government, in accordance with its conference policy]

Starmer vs. workers’ struggle

By a Free Our Unions supporter

With good reason, hundreds of thousands of labour movement activists feel contempt for Keir Starmer and little inclination to treat his pronouncements seriously.

Nonetheless, it is an unfortunate fact that Starmer leads the only substantial political party based on the UK’s labour movement. When he uses pro-worker rhetoric – as he has in a new attempt to mollify the trade union movement following the outrage at the sacking of Sam Tarry – we should note it and demand he follows through.

In his article for the Mirror, Starmer writes:

“I completely understand why people are going on strike to secure better pay and better conditions. I support their right to do so.”

This is obviously mealy mouthed: why support the right, not the strikes? But also: in fact workers in the UK don’t currently have anything like the right to strike. They haven’t since the introduction of a wave of anti-union laws in the 1980s and early 90s.

“When I was a lawyer, I represented striking miners for free. Not just sentiment and a photo opp. I backed up my words with action.”

But the miners’ strike would have been multiple-times illegal under today’s anti-union laws (even at the time it violated at least one recently introduced law, requiring ballots before strikes).

“That means turning from a party of protest into a party that can win power – then hand that power to working people.”

A Labour government should hand power to working people? Yes! But how?

A Labour leader who takes any of this remotely seriously would advocate and campaign for repeal of the anti-trade union laws – all of them, back to the first one Thatcher’s government passed in 1980. As the conference of Starmer’s party has repeatedly demanded.

Trade unionists and Labour activists must mobilise our organisations to force Starmer’s leadership to accept this policy. At the same time, we must demand Labour backs and helps mobilise protests to stop the threat of new anti-union laws.

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.

Organising meeting: 7pm, Wednesday 3 August

With the next Prime Minister highly likely to introduce severe new restrictions on the right to strike, the labour movement must organise to resist.

Free Our Unions will be holding an open organising meeting on Wednesday 3 August at 7pm, to discuss what activity we can organise directly, and how to work with, and within, our unions to catalyse wider action.

Please join us via Zoom here.

Meeting ID: 811 4321 6411
Passcode: 098735

Organise against new anti-strike threats


Prospective Prime Minister Liz Truss has announced a raft of new anti-strike laws she plans to introduce if elected. These include:

• Action within thirty days of taking office to introduce the “minimum service requirement” outlawing all-out strikes in certain sectors that the Tories pledged in their 2019 manifesto for transport – but extended to other sectors too.
• Doubling the minimum notice period for strikes from two to four weeks;
• Raising the threshold for strikes in certain “essential” sectors from 40% of the whole eligible membership voting to 50% and extending this to the whole economy;
• Some sort of “cooling off period” meaning unions cannot strike at will after a ballot mandate;
• Outlawing or restricting strike pay.

Effective workplace organisation and effective strikes are already heavily restricted in the UK, which has what Tony Blair once proudly called “the most restrictive union laws in the western world”.

Truss’s proposals would substantially reduce strikes from a leveraging of workers’ power to token protests, with limited impact. 

In the face of such a threat, it feels trite to repeat the truism that “the labour movement must resist”. But we cannot afford to repeat the experience of the campaign against what became the 2017 Trade Union Act, a largely desultory affair culminating in a single national rally and parliamentary lobby. Union general secretaries such as Mick Lynch and Sharon Graham have spoken strongly about campaigns of resistance: those words must be turned into action.

Join us on Wednesday 3 August at 7pm for an organising meeting to discuss building the fightback. Click here for details, including Zoom link.

Truss is proposing new laws in response to a rising tide of class struggle. But the reason she and other Tories feel able to go so far is that our movement has failed to adequately oppose and resist existing laws. That makes it easier to extend them.

But real resistance now can force the Tories back. As well as continuing campaigns of strikes, unions should enact their policies to organise action, including rallies and protests, locally and nationally, against anti-strike laws. Labour Party activists must organise to extract commitments from the party leadership to repeal anti-strike laws in government, in accordance with Labour Party policy. 

The RMT’s 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 risks is, in effect, a dictatorship of the boss. 

As Free Our Unions, we’ll be reaching out to unions that support us, and to campaigns like 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 argue 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 the two things are not counterposed; in fact, they are linked. It is only via a concerted national campaign of resistance, demanding the abolition of the laws and their replacement with a full, legally-enshrined right to strike, that the courage and confidence to defy the laws can be developed.

Honour the Pentonville Five? Then fight to scrap all anti-union laws!

This is a discussion article, written by a supporter of Free Our Unions

150 people packed into the eve-of-Durham Miners’ Gala rally held by the Institute of Employment Rights (IER) think tank on 8 July. It was hung on the hook of the mass action that freed the “Pentonville Five” fifty years ago this month, and called for a “New Deal for Workers” to rebuild workers’ rights and power.

The IER is influential at the top of the labour movement, and was influential on the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party. It was a major influence on the New Deal for Workers policy at least in theory still promoted by the Labour Party.

The speakers in Durham included Mick Lynch of RMT; Karen Reay of Unite; Jo Grady of UCU; John Hendy QC; Barry Gardiner MP; and Laura Pidcock, former Durham MP and now national secretary of the People’s Assembly.

Some of the speeches were very good, making important points about current struggles and how we mobilise and rebuild the labour movement to halt the stream of defeats that began not long after the great victories of the 70s and is continuing today.

Rank-and-file, class-struggle activists in the unions whose leaders were speaking might have various criticism of their records and how they measure up to the ideas expressed. But in terms of the IER’s focus and the focus of the meeting, on legally defined workers’ rights, the main weakness was one long typical of the organisation.

The IER has long evaded and downplayed the demand to repeal Thatcherite restrictions on the right to strike (see here and here).

Laura Pidcock presented the policy she developed, working with the IER, when she was shadow secretary for employment rights (the blueprint for the New Deal for Workers policy linked above) as pretty ideal. But this policy too evaded repealing the anti-union laws – an issue which, for all its merits, Pidcock’s speech did not mention.

John Hendy referred to the existence of a ban on solidarity action – but made no call for the labour movement to fight for its repeal or repeal of the other Thatcherite anti-strike laws (given what the IER does and doesn’t argue and campaign for, it doesn’t go without saying).

Mick Lynch said something like: “Of course we want repeal of the anti-union laws – we want all those restrictions cleared away – but must also fight for positive rights.” That’s absolutely right – but Lynch spoke if there is a functioning consensus in the labour movement on demanding repealing of the Thatcherite laws, when quite the opposite is the case.

All the speakers pretty much ignored the point that the strikes and protests to free the Pentonville Five were also to defeat and overturn the 1971 Industrial Relations Act under which the Five were jailed – an anti-union law far less severe than those that exist today.

Demanding changes to trade union law is no immediate answer to the challenges the labour movement faces. We need a massive spreading and stepping up of political campaigning, protests and above all strikes, within and where possible in defiance of the laws as they exist. But demanding legal changes to facilitate those struggles must be one of our goals. And repealing restrictions introduced over decades on the right to strike – all of them – should be the central axis of those changes.

The last real-world TUC Congress, in 2019, resolved that the TUC should ensure this demand is “central to all campaigning around emploment and workers’ rights [including] the New Deal”. The IER rally was another reminder of how much work we have to do to make that the case.

Green Party deputy leader candidates: speak out for free trade unions!

Following our candidates’ pledge for the recent Momentum NCG elections, Free Our Unions supporters in the Green Party have issued a pledge for candidates in the party’s deputy leadership election.

The pledge, below, asks candidates to commit to using their positions to promoting and building solidarity for workers’ action, and supporting a fight to repeal all anti-strike laws.

Candidates can sign the pledge online here, and we’ll contact them individually.

As Tories threaten new anti-union laws, build solidarity for a summer of strikes!

With the RMT’s strikes on the national rail and London Underground leading the way for what will hopefully become a summer of strikes, the labour movement must build solidarity for all workers’ struggles – and mobilise to resist the threat of new anti-union laws.

The Tories have already responded to the RMT strikes by rushing through legislation to allow employers to use agency workers to break strikes, and by saying they’ll accelerate the implementation of the “minimum service” laws they promised in their 2019 manifesto.

Multiple unions have passed policy to campaign actively against anti-strike laws, with several having committed to organising demonstrations. Those demonstrations should take place locally wherever they can be organised, in solidarity with unions in dispute, and opposing the threat of new laws.

A campaign of local and national protests can help build up the confidence and courage we’ll need to defy the laws if they’re imposed.

Momentum NCG candidates pledge

Momentum, the left-wing network in the Labour Party, is about to hold elections for its National Coordinating Group (NCG).

Free Our Unions has worked with Momentum before, collaborating with the Fire Brigades Union in 2021 to submit a motion to Momentum’s Policy Primary.

This year, we’re asking NCG candidates to commit to promoting strikes, and actively campaigning against anti-strike laws, and mobilising Momentum to do likewise. The pledge card is below; we’ll be contacting individual candidates electronically in the coming days.

Update:

The NCG elections concluded on 6 July. Thanks for the following candidates for backing our pledge:

Rochelle Charlton-Lainé (ELECTED)
Lorcan Whitehead (ELECTED)
Sonali Bhattacharyya (ELECTED)
Maisie Sanders
Abel Harvie-Clarke
Andy Warren
Si Oldham