Photo: Paul Mattsson
Photo: Paul Mattsson

Editorial of the Socialist issue 1232

This year’s NSSN conference comes at a crucial time. Hundreds of trade unionists will discuss and debate what response is needed from the workers’ movement to the Tories’ latest piece of anti-union legislation, the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill. We publish the motion circulated by the NSSN steering committee ahead of the conference. (see below)

The strike wave, with scope and scale not seen for a generation, is not abating. Matching the unabating assault on our living standards from rising prices and real-terms pay cuts – the fuel source of the working-class anger being expressed.

The minimum service levels legislation is a desperate attempt by a weak and divided Tory government to curtail strikes.

For an employer to choose to issue a work notice, imposing a minimum level of service outlined by a government minister, would be a provocative act pouring more fuel onto already burning anger. Likely to get royal assent in a matter of weeks, it is possible work notices could be issued on strikes of railway workers, junior doctors or teachers before the autumn. Such a move could be explosive.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch told a TUC-organised rally outside parliament in May: “We will not obey work notices issued by the employer or issued by the government.”

Immediate tasks

The NSSN draft motion outlines the immediate tasks for the trade unions, and anticipates what will be necessary to respond to attacks on unions and workers.

But it’s not just the minimum service level bill that has the potential to ignite further eruptions of turmoil. The bitter civil war in the Tories’ own ranks, thrust under the spotlight again with the Partygate report, further fuels the instability.

The relentless squeeze on workers’ spending power is the core fuel of the strike wave. But the attempts to tame inflation by raising interest rates stacks up further explosive matter too.

Banks are dumping mortgage deals in favour of more expensive ones, only to raise them again days later. 35,000 mortgages will reach the end of their term every week for the rest of the year, with an average additional annual cost under new deals set to be £2,900.

Meanwhile for the government, the cost of servicing the nation’s debts continues to grow. It is now higher under Sunak than it was at the time of the Truss-Kwarteng fiasco. The markets aren’t ditching British assets as they were in the autumn, but “there is unexploded ordnance in the UK economy”, as BBC economics editor Faisal Islam puts it.

There will be no lasting peace for Sunak, the Tories, or Keir Starmer, who is overwhelmingly the most likely to be the next to enter number ten.

Before a general election has even been announced, Labour has rowed back on spending pledges for things such as energy and childcare, all efforts to appease the capitalist markets.

The trade unions will need to defend members from a Starmer-led government overseeing a further decline in workers’ living standards. An electoral challenge to pro-capitalist Labour, even if at this stage it was a relatively small number of workers’ candidates backed by the trade unions, would apply working-class pressure on Starmer’s Labour.

If even a handful were elected independently of a Starmer-led government, their platform would be a pole of attraction to the inevitable eventual working-class opposition to what will be a government acting in the interests of big business, not working-class people.

Such a stand would be an important step towards re-establishing mass working-class political representation in the form of a new mass workers’ party.

The Socialist Party has supported the NSSN since its initiation by the RMT transport union in 2006, spearheaded by its late general secretary Bob Crow. Its founding conference resolved to rebuild the strength of the working-class movement from the bottom up.

The strike wave has accelerated that rebuilding process. A whole new generation is being recruited into the trade unions, and many are becoming shop stewards learning in the heat of battle. The National Education Union reported it recruited over 20,000 members in the week following the announcement of its first strike mandate in January. It has since recruited thousands of new reps.

Unite has organised hundreds of separate disputes, led by thousands of shop stewards, since Sharon Graham was elected leader in 2021. Royal College of Nursing members have taken strike action for the first time in the union’s 106-year history.

The strike wave, made up as it is by a variety of different disputes and of sets of workers with different characteristics and traditions of struggle, is putting all strike tactics and trade union leaderships to the test.

The necessity to defend living standards under attack has driven sections of workers to continue to reject inadequate, unfunded pay offers. And even sections of workers who, without a fighting lead from their union leaders, voted to accept pay deals or failed to meet the undemocratic 50%, will put pressure on to revisit pay as inflation persists.

RCN members defied their union leadership’s recommendation to accept an inadequate government pay offer. General secretary Pat Cullen said she “underestimated” her members.


The trade union lay leadership bodies have been hot with debate about the way forward in the individual strikes. It is positive that the RMT and Aslef rail unions are discussing joint meetings of their executives to discuss their dispute with their common employers, the Train Operating Companies. The Socialist Party has been raising the need for steps like this to plan coordination of the strikes in individual industries and for wider coordination of industrial action.

The recent series of union elections have not given a uniform picture of the union leaderships moving decisively to either the right or left. But it has been typical for these elections to have low, single-figure percentage turnouts.

A large proportion of the hundreds of thousands who have voted to strike, taken to picket lines, and to become shop stewards for the first time did not vote in the union elections this time. A feature of rebuilding the strength of the working-class movement will be these workers drawing the necessary conclusions about the need to exercise democratic control over their trade unions and industrial disputes. That includes organising politically in broad lefts to campaign for a fighting programme.

Socialist Party members, working with others, are fighting to assist in the establishment and re-establishment of these bodies across the trade unions.

Motion: Preparing to take on minimum service levels attacks

This conference/union/branch/trades council recognises the ‘Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill’ is a major attack on trade union rights. Sunak’s Conservative government is attempting draconian, undemocratic measures to curtail the right to strike.

Coming on the back of four decades of brutal Tory anti-union legislation, from that of Thatcher and Major through to Cameron, Johnson and now Sunak, it is clearly designed to cut across the strike wave across all sectors, rather than tackle the causes of the cost-of-living crisis. This is another crude attempt to shift the blame for inflation onto the working class whereas every worker knows it is the bosses and their class’s profiteering, which has created the crisis.

The bill would allow employers to issue a notice to unions setting out who is required to work during a strike. This potentially leaves unions who refuse to comply open to serious financial penalties through sequestration of funds and removes workers’ protection from being dismissed for undertaking lawful industrial action.

We believe no individual union or member should be left isolated and the whole of the trade union movement must mobilise – collectively – in defence of workers’ rights.

We demand:                                                                                         

  • All unions and the TUC urgently call a national Saturday demonstration against the new law
  • Keir Starmer pledges an incoming Labour government to reverse fines and other measures taken against any union under the terms of the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act
  • All employers refuse to use the provisions of the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act and that a lead in such non-compliance be given by any government, council, fire authority or other employer led by the Labour Party
  • If any union is taken to court or worker threatened with dismissal, an emergency demonstration is called and an immediate meeting of the TUC General Council be convened to organise mass co-ordinated strike action, including a 24-hour general strike
  • The repeal of all anti-union legislation

We support the rally to be held at TUC Congress in Liverpool on Sunday 10 September lobbying for this programme of action.