Protesting against the anti-union laws in May. Photo: Ian Pattison
Protesting against the anti-union laws in May. Photo: Ian Pattison

• For a weekend union-organised demo

• Strike together to defend unions and workers sanctioned

Editorial of the Socialist issue 1241

This year’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) in Liverpool, beginning 10 September, will take place at a critical stage. The Tories have, before the parliamentary summer recess, passed into law their latest tranche of anti-union legislation, the brutal Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) (MSL) Act. It has the power to open unions up to heavy financial damages if they don’t comply with the law, as well as exposing striking workers to the clear risk of dismissal.

Union reps and members, including the hundreds of thousands who have been taking action in the growing strike wave, will be looking to Congress for a fighting strategy to defeat this new Tory attack on the right to strike and inflict a decisive defeat on Sunak’s government. Many times over the last decade or so, particularly in the fight against Tory austerity, union activists have demanded that the TUC becomes a ‘council of war’, but that is exactly what must happen now.

Divided Tories

The MSL Act comes in a now very long line of Tory attacks on the right to strike – going back four decades to Thatcher’s anti-union laws, and then followed by those of Major, Cameron and Johnson. But it would be a serious miscalculation of Sunak to imagine that he is acting from a position of power. In fact, the various attempts by the House of Lords to effectively neuter the bill, including by Tory peers, reflects the deep nervousness of more farsighted representatives of the capitalist establishment.

They are wary of provoking mass resistance, glimpsed in the tide of struggle that has developed over the last two years. The crises in the Tories, leading to three prime ministers in 2022, has been underpinned by the unrelenting cost-of-living squeeze that has been the main driver for the biggest, broadest and most persistent strike wave for a generation. In August 2020, in the depths of the Covid lockdown, the more-realistic RPI inflation was 0.5%, just over two years later, it was over 14%. It is still almost double figures now with food inflation higher.

Shamefully, Cameron’s vicious 2016 Trade Union Act passed into law virtually unchallenged by the trade union leaderships. Not one national Saturday demonstration was called, let alone any industrial action. Yet this was only five years after the TUC’s 750,000-strong 26 March 2011 anti-austerity demonstration that led directly to the 30 November pensions strike of 29 unions, effectively a public sector general strike, against the same Cameron’s attack on public sector workers’ retirement rights and benefits. The strategy for that mass joint strike was discussed and set out at that year’s Congress, which was lobbied by over 500 union reps and members.

The 2016 Trade Union Act stipulated that industrial action ballots would only be legal if the turnout was at least 50%. The Tories believed that the new law would make it virtually impossible for unions to win national industrial action ballots, especially in the public sector, where hundreds of thousands of workers are grouped together in national agreements on pay, terms and conditions.

Undemocratic thresholds smashed

The strike wave has dealt a fatal blow to that idea, with a whole range of strike ballots smashing through the threshold. Some unions have moved to disaggregated ballots in order to ensure that at least a significant amount of members can beat the 50% threshold and take action, although some unions have managed to get the necessary turnout in nationally aggregated votes. On Budget Day this March, an estimated 600,000 workers took strike action together.

But Cameron went on the offensive in a period when workers’ struggle was at a historically low level. The stalling and eventual ending of the public sector pensions battle primarily by the right-wing union leaders of the TUC, Unison and the GMB, which had the potential to inflict a huge defeat on Cameron, only emboldened the Tory-led coalition with the Lib Dems (after the 2010 hung parliament) to unleash the biggest austerity attack for nearly a century.

In 2015, when the Trade Union Bill was launched after that year’s general election which gave Cameron a slim majority of ten seats, the number of working days lost due to industrial action was 170,000. It was the second-lowest annual total since records began in 1891.

However, this isn’t the industrial calm that faces Sunak’s divided, crisis-ridden administration. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that in the six months between June and December 2022, nearly 2.5 million days were lost, with 843,000 being lost in December alone. This level of action has continued this year.

TUC motions

There are motions on the TUC agenda from FBU, RMT, Unite, UCU and NASUWT that, if passed, would set out much of the fighting strategy that is needed. The FBU and RMT call for a special Congress, a mass national demonstration and mass non-compliance. The FBU calls for this to include industrial action and “100% solidarity with any trade unions attacked under these MSL laws”. The RMT motion demands that the TUC “organise a special Congress, size to be determined, to explore options for non-compliance and resistance.”

Although not included in its TUC Congress motion, Unite passed a resolution at its July policy conference, moved by a Socialist Party member, calling for action on the scale of a 24-hour general strike against the MSL Act.

Prepare mass action

The National Shop Stewards Network will be lobbying Congress to pass these motions. But the main points would then need to be put into action. Before the end of Congress, a date should be set for a national demonstration with a real campaign to build for it, linking the need to defend the right to strike to the persisting cost-of-living squeeze. There should be a process set out if any union or worker is threatened with action. This could include a solidarity demonstration outside the High Court, if a union is brought before it, or at a workplace if workers are threatened with the sack. This would be the platform for solidarity strike action. If the TUC refuses to undertake these steps, the fighting unions must take the lead that militant members of all unions would support.

But the fight against this pernicious law must also go onto the political plane. Correctly, all the motions call for an incoming Labour government to repeal this and other Tory anti-union legislation. But the RMT and FBU call for employers, devolved governments and local authorities to refuse to issue work notices. In particular, the FBU motion “calls on Labour-led local authorities, mayors, fire authorities and other public bodies to refuse to implement the MSL laws.”

Starmer’s Labour

But given Starmer’s constant policy retreats, shifting his New Labour further to the right, Labour can’t be trusted to stand up for workers’ rights, just as he wouldn’t stand on our picket lines. The unions must build a political alternative with a clear programme of socialist public ownership instead of the profiteers, to fight for the pay rises we need and throw off the statute book the Tory anti-union laws. If such a party existed right now, it would raise the sights of workers, strengthen the strike wave and also act as a powerful lever on the Starmerites. It would also be a growing pole of attraction during the travails of a Starmer government.

This Congress could very well be the last before such a government is elected. It is certainly the one that must give a lead against this vicious legislation. The strike wave has won important victories and there have also been setbacks. But over this period, workers have shown that they are prepared to fight. They have learned the priceless lesson that whatever is won, more is gained through struggle. Now is the moment to organise that struggle and push back the Tory attack.