Junior Doctors are among the strikers that could be in the firing line of MSLs. Photo: Elaine Brunskill
Junior Doctors are among the strikers that could be in the firing line of MSLs. Photo: Elaine Brunskill

Now build maximum pressure on leaders to see it through

Rob Williams, Socialist Party industrial and workplace organiser

Just after the Special Congress of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) on 9 December, called to oppose the Tories’ new minimum service levels anti-union legislation (MSLs), the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) tweeted: “The TUC, representing 5.5 million workers, has just agreed a campaign of resistance to the new anti-union laws at a Special Congress. Crucially, unions have agreed they will refuse to tell their members to cross picket lines, a clear act of defiance against the Act.”

FBU general secretary and this year’s TUC president, Matt Wrack, opened the congress by reminding delegates that the reason why Sunak’s government is resorting to their latest attack on the right to strike is because workers are fighting back against the cost-of-living squeeze.

The FBU’s motion to the annual Congress in September was one of the main drivers behind the special Congress. It set out what could be a fighting strategy against the MSLs, if implemented seriously. Central to that resistance is non-compliance: unions refusing to follow employers’ instructions to police their own strikes and select workers to effectively break their own strikes.

At September’s Congress, Matt revealed that the minimum levels in the fire and rescue service could be as high as 70%, and in control rooms 100%, meaning a ban on strikes in that area! Matt said to Special Congress that, while defiance could come with risks, given the stakes, the biggest danger was passivity.


The TUC General Council had produced a statement which incorporates important elements of the composite motion passed in September. The points that must form the basis of a real plan of action include:

  • Develop practical solidarity plans for unions actively engaged in strategies of non-compliance
  • Support any worker subject to a work notice, including support from across the trade union movement, if their employer disciplines them in any way 
  • Ensure that where any affiliate is facing significant risk of sanctions because of this legislation, we convene an emergency meeting of the Executive Committee to consider options for providing practical, industrial, financial and/or political backing to that union
  • Refuse to tell our members to cross a picket line
  • Call an urgent demonstration in the event a work notice is deployed and a union or worker is sanctioned in relation to a work notice 

However, real detail and intent is needed. The fact that the statement was moved and seconded by the right-wing general secretaries of shop workers’ union Usdaw and public sector union Unison will raise concerns with many union reps about the seriousness and determination that is necessary. Members of those unions must now apply pressure to their leaders to hold them to their words.

Name the date for a national demo

One of the main weaknesses of the General Council’s statement is that it didn’t name the date for a national Saturday demonstration in the New Year. This would be a vital step in mobilising workers as well as sending a clear message to the weak and divided Tory government that a real fight was on.

Instead, the statement proposed to “mobilise the whole trade union movement to march with the sacked GCHQ workers through Cheltenham on 27 January”, 40 years after Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher took away trade union rights there.

But there is no contradiction in supporting this march and also calling a national demonstration. Such a demo was called for by an FBU rep in one of the two panel discussions, which included union reps and members who have been on picket lines over the last year. Rail union RMT rep Jim Buchanan told Congress that striking rail workers had regularly overcome the undemocratic voting thresholds brought in by the Trade Union Act 2016 by then Tory prime minister David Cameron, now returned to cabinet office by Rishi Sunak.

In the debate, Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “This law puts the Tories at war with workers.” She told delegates that Unite had changed its rules so that it is not limited by the law. “The easy part of today is to agree the statement, but hard part will be to act… Real solidarity may take us outside the law. As it was said in 1921 [by the Poplar councillors], it’s better to break the law than break the poor.”

Labour employers

But, as with a number of speakers, Sharon warned that they couldn’t wait for Labour, especially with Starmer praising Thatcher, a reminder of his refusal to support strikes. Matt Wrack reminded delegates that Thatcher had destroyed working-class communities.

The statement demanded that an incoming Labour government honours its “commitment to repeal this legislation within their first 100 days of office”. But it is essential that the unions make demands on Labour now where it is the employer.

Before the Congress, the TUC published a joint statement from a number of Labour mayors and council leaders opposing the MSL law. But with comments such as looking to “explore every possible option”, they fall short of a categorical refusal to issue work notices. The unions must demand this.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch demanded that the Scottish National Party-led Scottish government and Labour-led Welsh government refuse to issue work notices, as well as Labour mayors such as Sadiq Khan in London. He said that the RMT, in dispute on London Underground, would stand with train drivers’ union Aslef, which is still taking action in the train operating companies.

There was no opposition to the General Council’s statement, which was passed unanimously. Communication Workers Union (CWU) general secretary Dave Ward said: “It’s a great statement but it doesn’t mean anything if we can’t look each other in the eyes and put it into action.” He called for every union to draw up an action plan of what it can do. But unions need to be serious and committed. “We’ve got to go further than ever before in collective solidarity.”


The TUC Special Congress has laid out a general plan of opposition and defiance to the MSL. But it is essential that maximum pressure is built and maintained on the union leaders. A vibrant lobby of the Congress in pouring rain, called by the National Shop Stewards Network, attracted militant rank-and-file union activists, intent on fighting for the action that can win.

In the next few weeks, unions representing rail workers and junior doctors could be in the firing line. The strike wave of the last 18 months against the crisis-ridden Tory governments of Johnson, Truss and Sunak has seen the biggest level of action since Thatcher. It shows that should Sunak and any employers press the MSL button, if action is prepared and built seriously, the Tories can be defeated and thrown out.