By Free Our Unions supporters in Unite
We publish this article in a spirit of a debate and discussion. We welcome responses from other activists.
During Unite’s recent general secretary election, Free Our Unions supporters in the union campaigned to raise the issue of the anti-union laws and the right to strike – primarily through a statement you can still support here .
We hope to continue this initiative and build on the connections we made in the months ahead. Given the importance of Unite in the UK labour movement – it’s the second biggest trade union and by far the biggest in the private sector – and the buzz of discussion now beginning in and around the union, it can play a crucial role here as elsewhere.
During the election, we encountered a fair few responses to what we were raising – usually from people who were supportive – along the lines of: “It’s not enough to raise this issue, as Unite does already. We need active campaigning around it.” This spirit is absolutely right, obviously. It’s true that we need to mobilise Unite activists, bodies, and the whole union in active public campaigning. But it’s not quite right that the union already raises the demand, but not actively enough. In general it hasn’t raised it at all. That’s why it’s so important to get Unite activists talking about the issues.
The policy agreed by Unite members’ representatives at the last Policy Conference, in 2018, is clear, modelled in fact on Free Our Union’s founding statement:
We need abolition of the anti-trade union laws, which hamstring workers organising and taking action, and their replacement with strong legal workers’ rights…
We applaud the 2017 Labour Party conference’s unanimous call for repeal of not just the 2016 Trade Union Act, but also the anti-union laws introduced in the 1980s and 90s by the Tories and maintained after 1997; and for a “strong legal charter of workers’ rights”, “for unions to be effective workers need an effective right to strike”.
… campaign to repeal the Trade Union Act 2016 and previous Tory anti-union legislation in favour of new legislation guaranteeing trade union freedoms… Campaign for strong legal rights for workers to join, recruit to and be represented by a union; strike/take industrial action by a process, at a time and for demands of their own choosing, including in solidarity with any other workers and for broader social and political goals; and picket freely…
(For the full policy and links to the policy conference document, etc., see here.)
But what Unite has said and done as a public campaigning force is not in line with this policy. Like many other unions, Unite has avoided calling for repeal of the all the anti-union laws, instead calling for repeal of only the 2016 Trade Union Act, and calling for measures to promote collective bargaining, including sectoral collective bargaining.
But well over two decades before the 2016 Act was passed, the right to strike had already been radically curtailed, with all the Thatcherite anti-union laws already in place. And, as the Institution of Employment Rights once put it well, “collective bargaining without the right to strike is collective begging”. (For discussions of how collective bargaining, separated out from the ability to organise and strike, has come to be treated as a panacea by some in the labour movement, see here and here.)
In the run up to the 2019 TUC Congress, in response to the growth of Free Our Unions, Unite EC member Andy Green published a criticism of FOU in the Morning Star. Riccardo la Torre and Becky Crocker replied for the campaign here, and Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack replied in the Morning Star.
At the 2019 TUC Congress Unite got words inserted into the FBU’s text which tended to weaken it: “Congress agrees to campaign, and encourage affiliated unions and trades councils to campaign, for the repeal of all anti-union laws, which may be given effect by new permissive legislation [emphasis added], and their replacement with strong legal rights, including to strike and picket; and for a clear commitment on this from Labour.” The extra wording was clearly in line with Andy Green’s argument in the Morning Star that it is not necessary to repeal the Thatcherite laws. (Unfortunately the TUC has anyway not yet acted on the policy its Congress passed.)
It is important to turn Unite around on all this, so Unite members can play our rightful role in getting the broad labour movement to campaign effectively for working-class interests, by seeking with determination to restore workers’ freedom of struggle. And we have a solid base for this stance in the policy passed by our last Policy Conference.
We should call on our new general secretary Sharon Graham and the rest of our leadership to take up this issue with vigour. Most important, though, Unite members should get organised to raise and campaign on it.