The Socialist 8 January 2020 |
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Defend the right to strike
RMT union members demonstrating against Johnson's threat to the right to strike, London 19.12.19, photo JB (Click to enlarge)
Jared Wood, RMT union national executive committee (personal capacity)
The Queen's Speech announced the new Tory government's intention to add yet more anti-union laws to Britain's statute books.
Just in case anyone retained any doubt as to the utter cynicism of Boris Johnson, he has presented further attacks on workers' rights as a protection of the right to work for workers who use Britain's railways to commute. It won't escape the notice of those commuters that rising fares, poor reliability, old and insufficient rolling stock and overcrowding will all be allowed to continue.
The chaos of the journey to work for millions every day will still be inflicted on passengers by a privatised rail network that sucks fare revenue and public subsidies out as profit. But don't worry, there will be a minimum service level on strike days.
You may wonder why the bosses could possibly need another anti-union law when the Communication Workers Union ballot can already be ruled illegal. Just before Christmas, 97% of postal workers voted to strike on a turnout of 75%, but still this wasn't good enough for the courts.
The new proposal in the Queen's Speech is directed specifically at the transport union RMT. It would compel workers in the rail sector to provide a minimum service level (yet to be specified) during strikes. This would effectively remove the right to strike from many individuals, who would be compelled to work during a legal strike.
RMT has acted as a beacon for the trade union movement in recent years. While the leaderships of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and many individual unions have cowered behind the "dented shield" - waiting and waiting for a Labour government to come along and rescue them - RMT has fought a tenacious industrial battle to defend the role of guards on trains, resist cuts, and defend jobs, pay and conditions.
Any new minimum service levels will be used as another line of attack by the government and privatised rail industry against RMT.
Of course, implementing this new proposed legislation will be a great deal more difficult than announcing it. It could also lead to much longer strikes. If only half the workforce can strike on a given day, then they may decide to strike for twice as many days. The law could also be a spur to some workers taking unofficial action that is neither organised nor sanctioned by any particular union.
But the trade union movement cannot sit back and allow this legislation to pass into law. It carries an enormous threat to the ability of unions to take effective action in defence of members. The Spanish state already has similar laws, and when workers at Barcelona airport went on strike last year, the courts ordered them to maintain a 90% service!
RMT and the train drivers' union, Aslef, need to stand together against these proposals. General union Unite also represents significant sections of rail workers, mainly in engineering functions; they too must be involved in resisting the new law.
It is also obvious that, should this law be established, then it will be broadened out to all essential public service workers, and then to the whole of the trade union movement. If rail unions have to ensure a minimum service level imposed by a court, then it is inconceivable that the same requirement would not be imposed on firefighters, NHS workers, teachers, civil servants and others.
The TUC should now immediately convene a conference of trade unions to organise a collective fightback against the new proposals. This should include building towards general strike action should the proposals be made law. Rallies should be held in all major cities, and a national demo organised.
There will be scepticism from many workers that the TUC will carry out such a fight, given the record of the TUC on resisting previous anti-union laws. But we should not allow them to just continue in their capitulation.
An alliance of the willing is needed urgently. Those unions who are prepared to fight should collaborate to campaign for a real resistance within the TUC, but also to campaign and strike together whether the TUC acts or not.
There is no time to waste. We must not wait until minimum service levels become law to fight them.