TUC demo against the anti-union laws

Marching to defend the right to strike – Prepare to strike together!

Chris Moore, Unison Gloucestershire local government branch, personal capacity

The centre of Cheltenham came to a standstill on 27 January. A town usually noted for its horseracing was a sea of colour as thousands of trade unionists came to defend the right to strike.

Carrying hundreds of union banners, alongside scores of trades councils from around the country, the demonstration gave a glimpse of the potential power of the 5.5 million workers represented by the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

Aslef victory

All were marching against the most recent menacing Tory anti-trade union legislation, the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act (MSL). A vicious but weak and split Tory government is staring at election meltdown, after a decade of destroying public services and wage levels. Sunak wants to force workers in health, education, fire, transport, border security and nuclear decommissioning, who have voted to strike, to cross their own picket lines. The legislation empowers bosses to issue striking employees with ‘work notices’, with the threat of the sack, or union funds being sequestrated, if they don’t comply.

The demonstration came just days after the train drivers’ union Aslef defeated the threat by the government-owned train operator LNER to impose MSLs. This victory boosted the whole demonstration.

The strike wave of the last two years has terrified this government. The mood of determination on the demo was buoyed by other recent events too, including the RMT on London Underground forcing Labour mayor Sadiq Khan to find an extra £30 million, and the Northern Ireland-wide public sector general strike.

Sharon Graham, Unite general secretary, said at the rally: “This legislation puts the government at war with workers.” Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT transport union, called for “non-compliance and non-cooperation”.


The TUC Special Congress in December set out a strategy to resist MSLs. It made a commitment to refuse to tell members to cross picket lines and to organise solidarity action across the trade union movement if a worker is disciplined by their employer.

The Cheltenham march, on the 40th anniversary of GCHQ workers losing their trade union rights (see GCHQ ban 40 years on’ at socialistparty.org.uk) was a welcome start, but a national London demonstration would build on this momentum. Union members maintaining pressure on their leaders is essential to turn a statement of intent into defiant action that could defeat the MSL and also Sunak’s government.

When the Tory government brought in the 2016 Trade Union Act, including undemocratic voting thresholds, many trade union leaders concluded widescale national action would be impossible. But after a decade when workers faced the biggest fall in living standards in over half a century, we have seen the highest level of strike action for 30 years. Not only have strike ballots smashed through the turnout requirements, but huge picket lines have left the six-picket restrictions of previous legislation in tatters.


Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, said: “We welcome pledges from Labour that they will repeal MSL in 100 days. But we will hold you to account to deliver. We don’t rely on politicians, we rely on ourselves.” Labour leader Keir Starmer says that in government his New Labour will repeal MSL and the 2016 Trade Union Act. But, as Daniel Kebede, NEU general secretary, said: “Labour must repeal all anti-trade union laws”.

How can we trust Starmer to deliver on his promises, having already backtracked on so many? With his refusal to support strikes and his warnings of “fiscal responsibility” and “tough choices” on public spending, it would be a mistake to wait.

Unions should demand that all public sector employers run by Labour publicly commit now to refusing to implement MSL, as the SNP has done in Scotland. And Starmer should pledge now that a Labour-led government would reinstate any sacked worker and reimburse unions facing fines.

Mass action can defeat MSLs and throw out the hated Tories, but the reality of a Starmer government poses the need for workers to fight for their own political voice.

Marchers spoke to the Socialist

Dawn Branch, cancer support worker at Cheltenham Hospital; a Unison member who joined the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) so she could take strike action

“After decades of Tory mismanagement and underfunding, it would make me feel sick to break a strike. The trade union movement must come together to fight this legislation. But I don’t trust Starmer at all, we’ve also got to look at political alternatives now.”

Paul Kershaw, chair of Unite LE1111 housing workers branch

“If you fight you can get results. But there’s no scope for complacency. Sharon Graham gives an absolute commitment to supporting any group of workers attacked under MSL. We should see this demo as a start of the campaign. The TUC should build for a really big demo in London linking defeating MSL to the cost-of-living crisis.”

Sheila Caffrey, standing for NEU vice-president

“The TUC should be calling unions together to coordinate and prepare a 24-hour general strike in the event of work notices being deployed.” 

Seb Michnowicz, secretary of Aslef Bristol branch and president of Bristol Trades Council

“We sent a clear message to the train operating companies. In the end, only one of them wanted to impose the MSL and we knocked them back with the threat of five extra strike days in our pay dispute.

“We can’t trust Starmer. What we need is a new workers’ party”.

Simon Edwards, branch secretary of Unite Cardiff

“We’ve been on strike for 15 weeks against Labour-led Cardiff City Council over bullying and poverty pay. They’re trying to break our strike. I can’t stand Labour.”

Mike Parfitt, Cardiff Unite rep

“Labour in Cardiff has turned Blue.” What do you think about workers’ needing our own political voice? “Go for it.”