Fight ‘the most serious threat yet to the right to strike’
Alistair Tice, Yorkshire Socialist Party
Using the weather forecast as an analogy for impending trade union battles, Rob Williams, chair of the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN), opened the NSSN rally at Trades Union Congress (TUC) saying: “There is a thunderstorm coming! Isn’t that why we’re all here?”
The NSSN meeting room on Liverpool’s Albert Dock was packed to overflowing on Sunday 10 September as delegates assembled for a Congress facing the most serious threat yet to the right to strike, in the form of the Tory government’s ‘Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act’ (MSL).
Rob stressed: “It is on the statute books. It is law. Any one of you in six sectors (including emergency services, education and transport) could get a work notice telling you to organise a strike-breaking operation! And the minister ‘may’ extend the sectors covered by the Act, ‘if the need arises.’
“Why? The Tories are hanging on. And despite all the previous anti-union laws, they haven’t stopped the biggest strike wave for 30 years.
“Workers could be sacked and trade unions could be fined up to £1 million! This TUC must be a council of war – class war. Motions from the Fire Brigades Union, the RMT rail union and Unite, if passed, would set out a programme of coordinated trade union action and demand Labour authorities not implement the law.
“If the TUC doesn’t pass, or doesn’t act on, such motions, then the NSSN calls for ‘a coalition of the willing’ – fighting trade unions to take the lead. We can’t leave Liverpool this week without such a programme of action!”
The city that dared to fight
Dave Walsh, president of Liverpool Trades Council (the oldest in the country) and Unite convenor for the council workers, welcomed us to the “City that dared to fight”, reminding us of the 1911 transport general strike.
He offered solidarity to the workers of Birmingham City Council facing potentially huge cuts due to the council being ‘bankrupt’, and highlighted the example of the socialist Liverpool city council that defied Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s cuts in the 1980s.
Trade unions fighting back
Steve Gillan, general secretary of the Prison Officers Association said: “The POA knows more than most about anti-union laws. Prison officers had their right to strike removed in 1994 under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. But that hasn’t stopped us from fighting”. Indeed the POA ‘struck’ in 2016 by holding ‘protest meetings’ outside prison gates.
Steve said: “We must be as critical of Labour as the Tories. Blair boasted about having the most restrictive trade union laws in western Europe. We demand an incoming Starmer government repeal not just some anti-union laws but ALL anti-union laws.”
Mick Whelan, general secretary of the train drivers’ union Aslef, emphasised the same point. “This legislation will make us ‘indentured workers’ once the right to strike is removed. All Maggie’s (Thatcher’s) laws and the anti-protest Police and Crime Act must be repealed.” Rail workers are still fighting for a pay rise. He said: “The government isn’t listening – but a lot of politicians aren’t listening. I’d like to know what our offer is if Labour get in power – and I’m on the NEC!”
Ian Lawrence, general secretary of Napo, the probation officers’ union, said he was enthused by the number of young people at the rally, a point repeated by several speakers. And how the last year had been “pivotal” in the number of first-time strikers. He was applauded when he said that Napo had reversed probation service privatisation.
Sarah Woolley, general secretary of the bakers’ union BAFWU, also commented that “Getting so many workers standing together regardless of the result is a massive achievement”. Sarah explained how the cost-of-living crisis was reflected in her union’s survey ‘Food workers on the breadline’, revealing that there are now more foodbanks in the UK than Greggs shops!
Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, spoke to NSSN supporters outside the TUC venue:
“This latest legislation is an unprecedented attack on workers’ right to strike. The FBU have raised the call to build a mass movement against it, including non-cooperation, non-compliance and non-implementation. Initially this was quite controversial, but the composite motion agreed, that the FBU is supporting, includes those points, has won General Council support, and I expect it to be carried at congress.
“It doesn’t address what action should be taken if any worker or union is victimised by it, but it does take the debate forward from the alternative, which would be endless compliance, grinding down our rights.
“But, as I told the General Council, unions may have no choice but to break the law. Or maybe find ourselves breaking the law without intent. Clearly the movement would have to mobilise to support any unions in that position.”
A serious fight needed – against the anti-union laws, for real pay rises, and against cuts
Onay Kasab, National Lead Officer for Unite, brought solidarity greetings from general secretary Sharon Graham. After highlighting where the ‘magic money tree’ really is, in the excess salaries, bonuses and profits of the big corporations, whilst the working class faces excess deaths from hypothermia and NHS cuts, he declared: “Trade unions – we are the opposition. Where we are organised, where we are fighting, we are winning. We don’t limit ourselves to the courts (the TUC is reporting the government to the International Labour Organisation), that’s their ground. We must fight these laws on our ground – the picket line.”
He said that Unite had conducted 900 disputes, winning 80% of them, gaining £400 million in extra earnings for members. “Truth is concrete – not crumbling RAAC concrete, but real levelling up.”
Onay highlighted the St Mungo’s housing workers’ victory, which Unite rep David Oladele spoke about, and the ongoing Hull and East Riding Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) strike, the first in 25 years at a CAB, about which Unite rep Ray Davies said: “We’re on strike, keep fighting, we’re going to win!”.
Onay reminded us that Unite had not accepted the NHS pay deal, and next week members in four London Trusts would be starting strike action, not just for pay, but for safe staffing levels as well. He ridiculed the Tory hypocrisy about minimum service levels on strike days, saying: “What about every single day? Every year? Many times, union emergency cover staffing is better than on non-strike days.” One of those trusts is Barts – Len Hockey, the Unite branch secretary, with six of his fellow stewards in attendance, reported that they got a 95% yes vote to strike on a 58% turnout.
Onay concluded by demanding that Labour councils refuse to implement the MSL laws. He demanded that a Labour government should repeal not just the MSL Act but all anti-trade union laws, and reimburse any trade unions fined by the Tory courts.
In reference to Birmingham Labour council, he demanded equality with no cuts, no privatisation, and no levelling down to achieve equality. “Maybe if they’d taken Unite’s advice, of no-cuts, needs-based budgets, using reserves and borrowing powers, and building a mass campaign, they wouldn’t be in this mess!” He called on Starmer to pledge to reimburse Labour councils using borrowing and reserves to stop cuts.
This was a point Dave Nellist, the national chair of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), emphasised from the floor. Commenting on reports that £2,500-a-seat places for business leaders at an event at next month’s Labour Party conference are oversubscribed, highlighting Starmer’s pro-bosses’ agenda, he said that trade unions need their own political representation. As a first step towards that, TUSC is calling for a list of 100 trade union-backed candidates in the general election. “It’s time the working class had a party it could genuinely call its own.”
Among the many other strikers and activists who had their say, young workers also spoke. Lluis, a young University and College Union member and Socialist Party member from Birmingham, spoke about the bold fight of his university colleagues, and appealed to attendees to link their trade union fight to the struggle for socialist policies. Mila, Coventry Socialist Party member, spoke about increasing numbers of young people organising and joining trade unions to fight the cost-of-living crisis.
Later, in defiance of camera-happy private security guards who were under instruction from their bosses to try to stop any leafleting or gathering outside, we all marched round to the conference centre and lobbied TUC delegates as they went in.
Why I came to lobby the TUC
Tracey McAllister, GMB shop steward at Asda, Hull: ”We’ve had the legal right to strike since the 19th century. Why are the Tories taking it away? What are they scared of? Are they scared of our voice, our strength, overpowering theirs? Hopefully today we’ll prove that we can beat them if we all stand together.”
Holly Johnston, Royal College of Nursing rep in Sheffield, and NHS Workers Say No: “It is ironic that the government is now focusing on minimum staffing levels as a reason to curtail strike action, when protecting the NHS goes to the very heart of why all healthcare workers are striking. We are working on minimum staffing levels and below on days we aren’t on strike! We need to build confidence to a point where workers feel strong enough to defy elements of the law, and if any union is taken to court or worker threatened with dismissal, an emergency demonstration is called, and the TUC should organise mass coordinated industrial action, including a 24-hour general strike.”
Joe Gibbins, Secretary of Hull Trades Council, which brought a coach to the lobby: “We’ve got to fight [the MSL law] with everything in our arsenal. We’ve been hamstrung by years of anti-union legislation which Labour didn’t repeal. We’ve got to not just fight the Tory government but put a shot across the bows of an incoming Labour government. And if they don’t repeal it, then the TUC organises to break it. It’s an unjust law, if it restricts our freedom to strike then we’ll have to break the law.”
Pete March, RMT delegate: “The railway unions could be the first industry that the MSL laws are used against. Employers will be able to pick who they want to work, to scab, on strike days. The Tories say it’s a matter of life and death – it’s not, if no trains are running then there’s no danger! The TUC must be dead set against it, maybe calling a general strike on it, that’s my opinion anyway.”
TUC agrees to call a national demo and special congress against anti-trade union laws
Rob Williams, Socialist Party executive committee
The main motion on the anti-trade union laws was a composited motion, of which the strongest parts came from the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and the RMT rail union.
The motion was moved by the NASUWT teachers’ union, which is taking national action short of strike action next week. General secretary Patrick Roache said: “Our movement is built on resistance.”
In seconding the motion, Mick Lynch from the RMT reminded everyone of 40 years of anti-trade union laws, but stressed that Congress needs to concentrate on the content of this motion, which is non-compliance and non-cooperation. “And that means there needs to be a special Congress called, there needs to be a national demonstration. Because compliance is the road to oblivion for the trade union movement”.
He said: “The reason why people remember the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the 1926 general strike and the miners’ strike, is because they fought and they didn’t give in. We need a serious mobilisation of the working class, led by the TUC.”
Matt Wrack, general secretary of the FBU, spoke in the debate and said it was the most important strategic debate of the week. “We want to see the back of all the trade union laws, and that’s the message we send to the Labour Party. And we send a warning to Labour: no backsliding from their promise to repeal the MSL and 2016 Trade Union Act within the first 100 days. And we send them a warning that we will defeat and smash this legislation.” The FBU’s original motion specifically called on “Labour-led local authorities, mayors, fire authorities and other public bodies to refuse to implement the MSL laws”. That reference was take out of the final composite, but it does put demands on employers.
Matt also made the point that in the Tory government consultation, they had different options on what was a minimum service level for the fire and rescue service. The high level was 90%, and the middle level was 77%. “That is effectively a strike ban,” he said. And in the control rooms, the MSL they’ve proposed is 100%!
The General Council of the TUC recommended that the composite motion be accepted. However, Usdaw general secretary Paddy Lillis, speaking on behalf of the General Council, said that the government hadn’t come forward yet with the definite MSL, and so a special Congress would be called after that has happened. It would be that special Congress that would call a national demonstration.
The congress debate did reflect what many workers will feel, coming as it does during the strike wave against the cost-of-living crisis. But all those union members and activists will not be satisfied with that plan to wait.
Workers want plans made now, for the agreed position of a national demonstration to be called now. Workers will expect that policy to be carried out without delay.
Key extracts from the agreed composite motion:
- Congress agrees that we have no choice but to build mass opposition to the MSL laws, up to and including a strategy of non-compliance and non-cooperation to make them unworkable, including industrial action.
- Congress calls on the next Labour government to immediately repeal MSL, the Trade Union Act 2016 and take urgent steps to remove other anti-union laws.
- Congress pledges 100% solidarity with any trade unions attacked under these MSL laws.
- Congress agrees we must use all means necessary to defeat the unjust MSLs laws and calls on the General Council to proactively seek to:
- resist any further restrictive trade union legislation and demand:
- the repeal of the Trade Union Act 2016 and all other anti-trade union legislation;
- stronger rights for unions to access workplaces, win recognition, and establish collective bargaining rights; and
- the right for trade union members to vote online during industrial action ballots, and statutory elections for executive committees and general secretaries.
- build an appropriate industrial response to defend workers’ right to strike;
- legally challenge the Minimum Service Levels (MSL) legislation;
- call on employers, devolved governments, mayors, fire authorities, local authorities and other public bodies to refuse to implement the MSL legislation and issue work notices and work with the trade union movement to render MSLs inoperable;
- support demonstrations and hold a national march opposing the legislation and calling for repeal of the anti-union laws;
- mobilise support for any affiliate seeking assistance, whose union and members are sanctioned for non-compliance;
- organise a Special Congress, size to be determined, to explore options for non-compliance and resistance.
The full composite can be seen at tuc.org.uk/Congress2023