Striking for Black Lives: Trade Unions and Political Strikes

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At the end of August, players in the US’s National Basketball Association effectively went on unofficial strike in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, sparked by the Milwaukee Bucks team refusing to play in protest at the police murder of Jacob Blake. Similar actions have since spread to teams in other sports.

The context is a ferment in the US around the idea of “striking for black lives”. In July a coalition of unions and workers’ groups held a day of action under that banner, with work stoppages and protests across the country.

This movement, or proto-movement, was inspired by unionised bus drivers in Minneapolis and New York who at the start of the BLM struggle refused to work transporting protesters for the police.

Most impressively, in June the ILWU dockers’ union twice stopped the West Coast ports in support of Black Lives Matter, demanding an end to “white supremacy” and “police terror” – once for nine minutes and once for a whole day. They chose to hold their second, all day, strike on Juneteenth, a date which celebrates the abolition of US slavery in the 1860s. (The ILWU has a tradition, having also taken action against South African apartheid for instance.)

Could we see anything similar in the UK?

We certainly have political causes which demand urgent and effective action – from racism in the police and the prison system to the Tories’ appalling handling of the pandemic, from the scandal of fire and building safety to the climate crisis. And there are few forms of action more effective than industrial action. As the Fire Brigades Union’s Firefighter magazine put it last year:

“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.”

We saw something of the possibilities last September when groups of workers stopped work alongside the school student climate strikers.

However, such political strike action faces a huge barrier in the form of the anti-trade union laws. Put simply, since the 1980s industrial action for anything other than strictly limited industrial demands has been illegal. Workers do not have the legal right to withdraw their labour as an instrument of political or social protest.

What this means is that you can engage limited democratic self-expression – on marches, protests and so on – in your own time, but as soon as you’re on the clock, democracy and the right to protest are suspended. That is something the labour movement should challenge, not accept as inevitable.

These laws hinder struggles against racism and injustice in other ways too. They ban solidarity action by one group of workers to support another, with all the obvious consequences for fighting injustice and oppression effectively.

In a Covid crisis which has disproportionately hit black and brown workers, the requirement for lengthy balloting processes, noticed periods and the like has hindered the kind of quick, decisive action necessary to act for safety and workers’ rights. Many workers have take action in defiance of the law but it nonetheless acts as a powerful limiting force.

We should argue:

Firstly – that however limited the things we can do immediately, we should sow the ground by popularising the idea of workers’ action as not just a tool to defend and improve terms and conditions, but as a weapon in the fight against injustice. In the circumstances we face – outrage at racism, a second wave of the pandemic, runaway corporate greed and the threat to our NHS and public services – the idea of political strikes could be very popular. It needs explaining. We should demand the right to exercise democratic rights, including the right to protest, at work.

We should point to and talk about the strikes for black lives in the US, about the climate strikes, about the Italian dockers who last year refused to load weapons for the Saudi war in Yemen. We should unearth inspiring historical examples like the Australian construction workers who stopped construction sites to defend the environment, working-class communities and indigenous peoples in the 1970s.

Secondly – that all the restrictions contained in the anti-trade union laws must go. All these laws must be repealed – not just the Tories’ 2016 Trade Union act, which makes things more difficult but doesn’t touch on the fundamental limitations discussed here. They should be replaced by positive legal rights for workers and unions, including strong legal rights to strike and picket freely for any demand.

Labour Party conference has repeatedly voted to repeal all the anti-union laws, as did TUC Congress last year. But so far the bulk of the labour movement is not fighting for this.

It is all very well for Labour politicians to say they support the climate strikers, but refuse to commit to scrapping the laws that prevent workers from striking alongside them. Similarly, Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner took the knee: but do they support workers being able to legally strike against racism, or not?

Thirdly – that the labour movements need to be ambitious. What can we do to take action despite the legal barriers?

US law is not quite as clear on banning political strikes as ours is, but there are restrictions. The West Coast dockers got round them by simultaneously holding a strike for a legal demand – against privatisation of the Port of Oakland, with its consequences for African American jobs – but explicitly raising the wider political questions.

In the 2016-2018 our Picturehouse Cinema workers did something similar on a smaller scale, striking for their legal industrial demands on International Women’s Day and using the opportunity to highlight their call for maternity pay as well as wider questions of women’s liberation.

There is nothing to stop unions holding legal strikes over industrial issues but on particular dates or with messaging that links them to wider political demands.

Many unions and union branches are already in dispute over industrial questions which are also racial injustices, such as pay gaps and safety at work. Such struggles should be spread and linked to a political message.

Lastly, as unofficial grassroots industrial action during the lockdown showed, we need to build confidence to defy the anti-union laws.

Trade unions, wrote Marx in 1866, must “learn to act deliberately as organising centres of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation. They must aid every social and political movement tending in that direction… They must convince the world at large that their efforts, far from being narrow and selfish, aim at the emancipation of the downtrodden millions.”

Those words echo today. If our labour movement makes itself central to the fight against injustice and oppression it will help us rebuild strength in the workplace too.

By Sacha Ismail

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