The call must go out: organise against new anti-strike threats

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.

Next organising meeting: 7pm, 7 September

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
Passcode: 683428

Grant Shapps’ 16-point plan to restrict strikes

Tory Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has announced a 16-point plan to further restrict strikes. Many of the measures overlap with plans already announced by prospective prime minister Liz Truss, and two have already been implemented.

Whether Shapps survives the cabinet reshuffle that will inevitably follow the election of the new prime minister remains to be seen/ Nevertheless, both Truss and Shapps’ announcement are an indication of how serious the Tories are about further criminalising effective trade unionism, and highlight how seriously the labour movement must organise in response.

1. Raise the balloting support threshold in important public services to require a minimum of 50 per cent of the eligible electorate to vote in favour of action (currently 40 per cent).

2. Require unions to give four weeks’ notice of industrial action instead of two.

3. Limit the ballot mandate to one event of strike action (currently the mandate allows any number of strikes within six months; this would have required the RMT to reballot five times so far if they wanted to stage five one-day strikes).

4. Impose absolute limits on numbers attending pickets.

5. Place restriction on picketing in the vicinity of critical national infrastructure sites.

6. Prohibit use of inflammatory and intimidatory language on pickets.

7. Prohibit online intimidation.

8. Remove the cost risk to employers through sanctions imposed for making an offer directly to trade union members before collective bargaining has been exhausted.

9. Require ballot papers to clearly state the reason for the dispute and employer’s response to issues in dispute.

10. Remove prohibition in the Civil Contingencies Act on using emergency regulations to stop strike action where strike may create a national emergency (other CCA safeguards still apply).

11. Bring in a cap on facility time in the public sector.

12. Remove trade union check-off facility in public sector employers (private ones will have the power to do so if they wish).

13. Investigate taxation of ‘strike pay’.

14. Minimum service levels in rail.

15. Remove prohibition on agency workers being used to temporarily replace strikers (done).

16. Increase the damages cap for unlawful strikes (done).

Available online here.

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. Click here for the Facebook event.

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

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.