“Unions are back”? Let’s fight to free them!

We’ve seen some articles recently arguing that “unions are back”, pointing to trade unions’ role in speaking up for workers’ rights, and against any reckless back-to-work drive from the government, for examples in schools, during the pandemic.

Many trade unionists might respond: “We never went away!” Union reps and activists in workplaces across the country have been working continually to defend and extend workers’ rights, and especially to fight for safer workplaces.

The recently increased visibility for trade unions in public and political life is extremely welcome, and many unions’ assertiveness in opposing back-to-work lurches, and emphasising their members’ rights to refuse unsafe work is to be applauded. But we should aspire to more than a seat at the table, or to be “listened to”, or considered “stakeholders”, by ministers in a hard-right Tory government.

What we need most of all is the freedom to organise and take the direct action necessary to improve our conditions and the society around us. Unions are still prevented from doing that legally by what remains one of the most restrictive legislative regimes of any democratic country. Strike figures remain at historic lows. Much of the workers’ action we’ve seen during the pandemic, for example walkouts by postal workers, has been conducted “unofficially”, in defiance of anti-union legislation.

If senior Tory ministers are “listening to us”, as some prominent union officials have claimed, isn’t it time we raised our voices to demand the repeal of anti-union laws, and in the first place to resist the imposition of new ones?

The Tories remain committed to their policy of imposing “minimum service requirements” during transport strikes, legislation that would ban all-out strikes in the transport sector, meaning a group of key workers who’ve provided a vital service throughout the pandemic would be prevented from taking effective action to improve their conditions.

Existing laws already mean that, for any group of workers to strike officially and legally, they must go through a protracted bureaucratic process beforehand, including drawn-out postal ballots that atomise workplace solidarity; meeting arbitrary turnout thresholds not applied to any other area of democratic life; and giving employers two weeks’ notice of any action, meaning that by the time we’re eventually able strike, bosses have been able to establish new “facts on the ground” that render our strikes retrospective protests against something that’s already happened.

Some employers are now threatening huge job cuts, and the government has refused to rule out a public sector pay freeze, meaning the NHS “heroes” we’ve all clapped for every Thursday night could receive a real-terms pay cut for their efforts. Anti-union laws are designed to restrict our ability to resist such attacks.

Our movement needs to raise its voice against anti-union laws. Labour must assert its policy, passed at successive conferences, for the repeal of all anti-union laws, not only the most recent, and demand that the Tories drop their plans to impose new ones. And, when workers take action in defiance of existing legislation, as we have already seen during the pandemic and can expect to see again, the whole movement must support them.

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