Fight to free our unions

This article, by Riccardo La Torre and Sacha Ismail, was orginally published on the FBU website on 19th June 2019. Find it here.

Anti-union laws, severely restricting the right to organise and take industrial action, are a barrier to workers defending their interests and building up the labour movement’s strength. All of them – from David Cameron’s 2016 Trade Union Act back to the first of many laws passed under Margaret Thatcher, from 1980 – need to go.

That was the clear message from this year’s FBU conference.

Delegates unanimously passed a resolution from Suffolk brigade making the FBU the first national union to formally support the Free Our Unions campaign, set up last year and backed by union branches across the country.

The motion calls for a clear commitment from the Labour Party to repeal all anti-union laws and replace them with strong legal rights for workers and unions.

At the ‘Free Our Unions’ fringe meeting sponsored by Eastern and West Midlands regions, speakers included FBU general secretary, Matt Wrack, anti-blacklist campaigner Dave Smith and school student activist Patrick Wakefield, who talked about the recent school walkouts over climate change and why workers need the right to take action on the same issues.

There was a good discussion, which included how we balance fighting to repeal anti-union laws and, while they remain, resisting the tendency to let them dampen down unions’ activity.

We want the right to take industrial action when and how workers choose, without the current absurd procedures and restrictions; the right to take action on any issue, from basic workplace issues to solidarity with other workers, to broader questions like fire safety or climate change; and the right to picket freely.

Anti-union laws prevent the kind of inspiring action UK workers organised in the not-so-distant past, like mass pickets, miners and printers striking to support NHS staff, or indeed workers taking action over green issues.

For many unions these hinder national industrial action, as shown by the recent difficulties of PCS and UCU in meeting ballot thresholds, despite huge turnouts and yes votes.

Workplace activism

But perhaps most importantly these laws make the basic business of workplace organising much more difficult than it should be. Fighting to scrap them and, meanwhile, not letting them intimidate us, is essential to rebuilding a strong culture of workplace activism throughout the economy.

Because employers and this government are so afraid of workers’ potential power, unions are among the most tightly regulated organisations in the UK. The absurdity of this set-up is shown by the fact that firefighters have had to ballot to collectively refuse to do work which is not in their contract.

We need an end to laws which empower fire chiefs to dictate where and how striking firefighters can picket – even after they have cleared all the ballot and other procedural hurdles. We do not need government ministers telling unions how they can and cannot spend their members’ subs.

More broadly, consider the injustices we face – like those that still plague the Grenfell community two years on. We hold meetings, we petition, we march. But imagine the change we could effect if workers were able to withdraw their labour to stand up in solidarity with other workers and the wider community.

The Labour Party has made some important promises on workers’ rights, but it is far from clear whether it will repeal all the anti-union laws or simply the 2016 Trade Union Act. Labour movement campaigning to win a clear commitment on this is essential, and with its affiliation to Labour and support for the Free Our Unions campaign, the FBU can take a leading role.

The union nationally will be promoting the campaign, so look out for more; but meanwhile raise these issues locally. Educate yourself and other members and integrate the call to scrap the anti-union laws into your wider arguments and campaigning.

A revolution in workers’ rights

Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said that John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, had pledged Labour would repeal the punitive 2016 Trade Union Act.

“While that is an important and necessary step,” he said, “2016 was the culmination of decades of government antagonism to unions, not the beginning.

“A Labour government needs to support and build the labour movement. That means tackling the decades of anti-union legislation we suffer under.

“Nearly 30 years after her resignation, Thatcher-era union-busting laws remain in place. The Labour government that we fight for must repeal all of the UK’s anti-union laws and deliver a revolution in workers’ rights.”

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