NSSN-lobby September 2023. Photo: Louie-Fulton
NSSN-lobby September 2023. Photo: Louie-Fulton
  • Name the date now for a mass demo
  • Demand employers refuse to issue work notices – including Labour authorities
  • Prepare to strike to defend victimised unions and members

Rob Williams, Socialist Party workplace organiser

In the press release announcing its 9 December Special Congress against the Tories’ new Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act (MSL), Trades Union Congress (TUC) General Secretary Paul Nowak said: “The UK already has some of the most restrictive trade union laws in Europe. Now the Tories want to make it even harder for people to win fair pay and conditions. That’s why we are calling this once-in-a-generation Special Congress.”

If the Tories get away with it, the MSL Act represents a serious attack on the right to strike, in effect forcing unions to organise their own strike-breaking operations. The Tories’ ‘code of practice’ for the new law states that trade union-appointed picket supervisors “will be instructed by the trade union to use reasonable endeavours to ensure that picketers avoid, so far as reasonably practicable, trying to persuade members who are identified in a work notice not to cross the picket line at times when they are required by the work notice to work”.

What is needed?

Union reps and activists looking on at the Special Congress will ask the question: what is needed for the trade union movement to force the Tories back?

Sunak’s government is weak and divided. He became the third Tory prime minister in two months when he took office in October 2022 and his government is mired in crisis – shown by the sacking of his Home Secretary Suella Braverman and the return of ex-PM Cameron. Also, the Tories and the employers are faced with a strike wave that has seen the biggest level of action since the Thatcher period of the 1980s. There is ten times the level of industrial action than when David Cameron brought in his Trade Union Act seven years ago.

It is an open question what the Tories’ intentions are for the MSL Act. The original legislation was tabled in January 2023, yet it’s still not clear if and when it will be implemented. It was finally passed into law in July, just before the summer parliamentary recess, and was then followed by a lengthy consultation process.


But the threat of the MSL must be taken with maximum seriousness. The Tories have now started to propose actual minimum service levels for some sectors. For the rail industry, they state: “Where a strike affects passenger train operation services, the MSL is the equivalent of 40% of the operator’s timetabled services during the strike.” Also, the Tories have now announced their intention to overturn the defeat they suffered in the High Court in the summer on using agency workers to undermine strikes.

Actually, the Tories have begun to use MSLs as a threat against a number of groups of workers, especially those in dispute and considering calling action, from doctors to education staff. The latest statements from the government specifically target workers on ambulances, border control and on the rails.

While there aren’t currently live disputes in the first two areas, Aslef train drivers continue to take nationwide strike action (including during the week before the Congress) and the RMT is balloting on pay on London Underground. A serous clash could quickly be posed, for which the Special Congress must set out a concrete course of action.

Such a plan of action is the most likely way to push the Tories back from moving to implementation. Alternatively, the union leaders may argue that because Labour’s Keir Starmer is overwhelmingly likely to be elected as prime minister next year, and has promised to repeal not only the MSL but Cameron’s Trade Union Act, that if a union is targeted, there should be a pragmatic retreat.

That would be a massive mistake. Union activists have already learned not to be too trusting in Starmer. They are well aware of his refusal to support the strikes, even sacking Sam Tarry as shadow transport secretary for supporting action by rail workers from his former union TSSA.

Starmer’s Labour

Particularly buoyed by the Tory meltdown over Truss that reached its height at last year’s Congress, Starmer told delegates that he wouldn’t apologise for not supporting union action and warned that his government would be one of ‘tough choices’. This was correctly understood by many at the Congress to mean yet more wage restraint, after enduring the biggest cut in living standards for generations.

Starmer has reinforced this message by scandalously praising Thatcher in the Sunday Telegraph! In addition, his craven tail-ending of the Tories over Gaza, including refusing to support a ceasefire amidst the barbaric assault of the Israeli military, is further confirmation that his starting point in Downing Street will be to represent the interests and profits of big business. This all poses the need for a political alternative for workers.

The best way to ensure that the MSL Act is defeated or repealed by an incoming government is to build a mass campaign of defiance or, as the motion passed at September’s Congress defined it: “non-compliance and resistance”.

Name the date

This means concretising that resolution. Therefore, the Special Congress should name the date for a mass union demonstration early in the new year, linking together the fight for the right to strike with the struggle against the Tory cost-of-living squeeze. There should be an agreed process for if and when any union is threatened with a fine (which could be up to a £1 million) or if any group of workers faces dismissal for not complying with the legislation. This could involve the calling of an emergency demonstration outside the courts. But it should also include preparing the ground now for a national stoppage on the scale of a 24-hour general strike by all unions if anyone is attacked.

The TUC should demand not only that Starmer keeps his promise to repeal the MSL Act along with the Trade Union Act, but that all employers, particularly those led by Labour representatives, refuse to issue work notices; this includes the Welsh government, councils and directly elected mayors such as Sadiq Khan in London and Andy Burnham in Manchester, and fire authorities like Merseyside, who the Fire Brigades Union have had a longstanding dispute with.

This is the concrete fighting programme that is needed. If that does not come out of the Special Congress, the militant unions must come together in a ‘Coalition of the Willing’ behind the strategy that’s needed – including naming the date for a national demonstration.

The strike wave that has built over the last 18 months, including at least two days where over half a million workers took strike action together, has shown that workers are prepared to fight. New sectors where union organisation has barely existed have seen big battles such as at Amazon. At the other end of the battlefield is a weak, divided and crisis-ridden Tory government.

The workers movement can win a real victory that could not only inflict a terminal defeat on the Tories but lay down a warning to Starmer too. This is the fighting programme that union reps and activists must now fight for, and is what Socialist Party members will be demanding of the TUC at the NSSN-organised lobby on 9 December.

Lessons from struggles against anti-union laws

The TUC’s press release stated that the last time that the TUC called a Special Congress was over 40 years ago. That Congress, in April 1982, was organised in response to the first tranche of Thatcher’s anti-union laws. But it wasn’t inevitable that the Tories would be successful in their imposition.

However, because most of the union leaders were not willing to take the mass collective action to support the major industrial disputes that were targeted by Thatcher, such as the miners’ strike and the print strikes in Warrington and Wapping, the Tories were able to implement and consolidate this brutal anti-union attack. It still forms the basis of what Tony Blair once boasted (and largely left on the statute book) the most restrictive trade union laws in Western Europe, and has been added to by the Trade Union Act 2016 of Rishi Sunak’s new cabinet recruit David Cameron.

However, there was another special Congress staged in Croydon in 1971; organised to oppose Tory prime minister Edward Heath’s Industrial Relations Act. Those anti-strike laws were eventually repealed by the 1974 Labour government, but only after they were rendered inoperable by a mass workers’ movement in 1972 against the jailing of the ‘Pentonville 5’ London dockers. An unofficial stoppage of general strike proportions defeated Heath and forced the release of the dockers’ union reps. The TUC was forced by this movement to name the date for a general strike, the first since 1926, although by then the TUC knew that the Tories were going to buckle. Thatcher was a minister in Heath’s cabinet that suffered this defeat.