Workers at the National Shop Stewards Network lobby of the TUC in September 2023. Photo: Louie Fulton
Workers at the National Shop Stewards Network lobby of the TUC in September 2023. Photo: Louie Fulton
Nipsa members on strike. Photo: Militant Left

Hundreds of thousands of nurses, teachers, civil servants, and other public sector workers took strike action in Northern Ireland on 18 January in one of its biggest ever strikes. Read the article here.

Editorial of the Socialist issue 1259

In response to the Tories’ move to bring in further anti-union legislation attacking the right to strike, thousands will march through Cheltenham on 27 January, organised by the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 (MSL) stands on four decades of Tory anti-union laws. Arguably this is the most sinister attack yet, trying to force unions to organise their own strike-breaking operations.

But this isn’t the act of a powerful government. Instead, the Tories are split asunder and reeling from crisis to crisis, with realistically just months left in office.

Aslef beats Tories back

This weakness has been revealed utterly by the retreat forced upon the state-owned rail company LNER by train drivers’ union Aslef. In response to a week of national rolling industrial action across the train operating companies in the longstanding dispute, no doubt under the influence of Sunak’s government, LNER had threatened to issue an MSL ‘work notice’ to Aslef, the first time it would have been used. But after the union put on five further strike days, the company backed off. This defeat inflicted on LNER, and behind it the Tories, points the way to how the unions can defy this latest Tory anti-union legislation.

Rishi Sunak came in to Downing Street in the midst of the strike wave, just as it was spreading to the public sector. His first instinct was to dismiss the action, refusing to negotiate with unions on pay. But he was forced back to the table by mass action. Although for many workers in the public sector the improved pay deals fell short of what was needed, the main lesson for most was that action works!

Now, Sunak has built on Boris Johnson’s attacks on the right to strike, first tabled in the Queen’s Speech after his general election victory in December 2019. Initially aimed at the rail and transport unions, it was left on the shelf as the pandemic struck and Johnson’s chaotic government slid into crises.

Strategy to beat MSL laws

A Special TUC Congress in December set down the basis of a strategy that, if implemented and built upon with concrete steps of defiance, could inflict a fatal defeat on Sunak’s government and the MSL laws. The strategy must be rooted in the idea that, if any union or worker is attacked by their employer, the whole union movement must come to their defence with solidarity action.

Keir Starmer has stated that, in power, his New Labour will repeal the MSL laws, as well as Cameron’s 2016 Trade Union Act. But it would be a fatal mistake for any union which finds itself in the firing line – which could be the case in the NHS and on the railways – and the rest of the unions as a whole, to believe that they could make a pragmatic tactical swerve to comply with the laws, safe in the knowledge that Starmer is a shoo-in for office and will save the day.

Given Starmer’s record on refusing to support strikes, his warnings to unions that in office he will make ‘tough choices’ about public spending, and now his disgraceful role over Gaza, the unions have to launch a serious fight to defeat the Tories’ attack on the right to strike.

The TUC’s statement, passed unanimously at the Special Congress, states that unions will “refuse to tell our members to cross a picket line” and if any union faces being sanctioned under the MSL law, “an emergency meeting of the Executive Committee” will be convened “to consider options for providing practical, industrial, financial and/or political backing to that union” and the TUC will call “an urgent demonstration”.

It is therefore welcome that the Congress called the national TUC demonstration on Saturday 27 January. The reason given for it being staged in Cheltenham is because it is the 40th anniversary of Thatcher’s outlawing of trade unionism at GCHQ, which saw the sacking of a number of union reps.

However, this doesn’t preclude the TUC calling a national demonstration in London that could mobilise hundreds of thousands of workers, particularly if it links the need to defend the right to strike with the struggle against the attack on living standards. In March 2011, upwards of 750,000 workers marched through London on the TUC demonstration against the Tory-Lib Dem coalition’s austerity offensive. That led directly to the two million-strong mass stoppage on 30 November 2011, effectively a public sector general strike.

If continued and escalated, that struggle could have defeated the government. The strike wave of the last two years has been on a higher and far more sustained level. Last year, there were at least two days where over half a million workers went on strike together. On 18 January this year, there was a Northern Ireland-wide public sector general strike (see page 15), and a week earlier the RMT forced Labour London mayor Sadiq Khan to find an extra £30 million for tube workers, or face strikes on London Underground.

The Tory Evening Standard couldn’t contain their venom at this retreat by Khan, warning that it will send a clear message that striking gets result. It lashed out at the mayor, saying that he should have used the MSL legislation against the RMT. But, alongside the economic effects of the tube workers stopping London and Khan’s concerns about such a serious industrial dispute in the run-up to the mayoral election, he may well have wanted to avoid being the first employer to use this Tory anti-union legislation.

Unions must now seize upon this to demand that all public sector employers run by Labour and the SNP, Plaid and the Greens publicly commit to refusing to implement the MSL in any dispute. The unions should also demand that Starmer pledges now to not only repeal the MSL laws in office, but to reinstate any worker sacked, as well as reimburse any union fined.

But if Sunak and any employer moves to use the MSL, as Aslef has shown this week, the Tories can be defeated now and, with mass action, can be thrown from office. Such action would also send a clear message of intent to Starmer, that workers and their unions will defend themselves from any pro-business government. It also poses the need for workers to fight for a political voice that stands on our side against the bosses.

The main points of the statement against the MSL that was agreed by the Special TUC Congress in December were:

  • We will develop practical solidarity plans for unions actively engaged in strategies of non-compliance
  • Support any worker subject to a work notice, including with 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
  • Call on all employers and public bodies with oversight to oppose this counterproductive legislation. Employers and public bodies from across the public sector and the country have already signalled their opposition to the Strikes Act. All employers and public bodies must reject it
  • 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