We’re writing in response to your recent pamphlet Winning the Future: Socialist Responses to the Coronavirus Crisis. Well done on producing it – it’s a contribution to the urgent task of raising the labour movement’s ambitiousness and confidence in difficult times.
In the spirit of your call for the pamphlet to be “widely read and debated in the labour and trade union movement”, we’d like to propose a way in which its demands could be strengthened. As the pamphlet indicates, workers’ rights are key. In turn, the right to strike is key – both to underpinning all workers’ rights and to the fight for all our movement’s demands.
In the articles by Claudia Webbe and John McDonnell, the pamphlet calls for repeal of the 2016 Trade Union Act and other important changes. But it is less clear on repealing the other anti-union/anti-strike laws, those introduced in the 1980s and 90s under Thatcher and Major. The Covid crisis has highlighted how it is not just the Trade Union Act which stymies workers taking action. The ability of workers to act quickly and decisively to defend safety and rights is curbed by the earlier laws which created arduous procedures for strikes to be legal. The Trade Union Act of course made these procedures more arduous still.
Moreover these earlier anti-union laws prevent industrial action for anything other than narrowly defined “trade dispute” issues. It was illegal for unions in the UK to organise strikes alongside the student climate strikers; it would be illegal for unions to organise strikes to say Black Lives Matter (as some workers in the US have done).
Solidarity action between different groups of workers, which the Institute of Employment Rights rightly called fundamental to “the whole ethos of the trade union movement”, is also banned. The laws even before 2016 were a bosses’ charter to prevent strikes from happening in various ways. And while reasserting collective bargaining is crucial, it is surely true that “collective bargaining without the right to strike is collective begging”.
Yet over the years, a norm has developed in the labour movement of demanding repeal only of the 2016 Act and either saying nothing about the earlier anti-union laws or suggesting in an unclear way that they can be dealt with without repealing them. Greater clarity and radicalism is necessary.
We need positive legal rights to strike, to picket and so on. But we should be clear that these rights are not compatible with the restrictions contained in the Thatcherite laws. Those laws also need to be repealed. The formula popularised by Bob Crow of the RMT, “repeal and replace”, is still right.
This is also an issue of Labour Party and labour movement democracy. Labour conference has voted repeatedly for repeal of all the anti-union laws, most recently in 2019, when it voted in two separate motions that “in power Labour will… repeal all anti-union laws”. Conference 2017 made explicit that it was demanding “repeal” not just of the Trade Union Act, but also “anti-union laws introduced in the 1980s and 90s”.
Polling by Rebecca Long-Bailey’s leadership campaign found that Labour members supported this stance by a ratio of 5-1. TUC Congress 2019 noted that “the anti-trade union laws – not just the 2016 Trade Union Act, but multiple laws going back to 1980 – continually undermine workers’ ability to organise and campaign”; and voted “to campaign, and encourage affiliated unions and trades councils to campaign, for the repeal of all anti-union laws”. The left should be championing this policy decided democratically by party and union members.
Again, winning a strong right to strike is essential not just to guaranteeing workers’ rights but to the labour movement’s ability to fight for all its demands, and for social change more generally. We look forward to discussing and working with you on these issues.
Riccardo la Torre, for the Free Our Unions campaign