Matt Wrack: “We demand the unshackling of our unions”

We reproduce below the speech given by Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), at the recent TUC Congress in support of the composite on defending the right to protest. The composite was passed, reaffirming TUC policy to demand the abolition of all legal restrictions on the right to organise and strike.


Thank you, President.

President and Congress, it’s a great privilege to follow Taj [Salam, of Unite] in this important debate on this important composite, about an important attack on our civil liberties and our ability to organise to defend ourselves.

This attack from this government is no accident. They know that they intend to force working people to pay the price of their crisis; they know that will prompt resistance; and they want to limit and attack our right to resist. That’s what this is all about, and we should have no hesitation in making clear that our movement needs to unite to defend the right to protest, to defend and extend trade union rights.

The right to protest is essential for democracy. The right to protest is what won many of our democratic rights: the right to vote was won by people breaking the law and taking direction action… the abolition of child labour, the right to oppose war – exposed so sharply in recent weeks with the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the exposure of a twenty-year failure of military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq – and of course the right to support ourselves in strikes… Protest is an essential part of what we do.

These attacks through the current proposed legislation are a threat to our class: they are a threat to trade unionists, they are a threat to climate activists, they are a threat to homeless people, they are a threat to black people, to black activists campaigning and those campaigning against racism, they are a threat particularly to the Gypsy Roma and Traveller community. They will of course allow the rich and powerful to go unchallenged –that’s the whole agenda here, resisting our ability to challenge those in power, our bosses and those in government.

We need to remember also, as mentioned in this composite, that our unions remained shackled. As has been said, we demand the repeal of all the anti-union laws. We need to demand the unshackling of our unions. I remind Congress of existing policy that says workers should:

“be represented by an independent 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.”

Those are the demands this movement must set out in the face of the attacks we face.

Let’s remind ourselves of some of those battles. When we won freedom for the Pentonville Five. When miners took strike action in support of NHS workers in 1982. And of course the famous case of the Rolls-Royce workers at East Kilbride, who took action to prevent engines from arming the Pinochet regime in Chile.

All these are acts which would be unlawful today – but we don’t apologise for them. We don’t apologise for our history of solidarity; no, we take pride in our history of solidarity which has won such progress over the decades and throughout the history of our movement.

We also know, we know in the FBU, that we have been spied on by undercover police officers. We have been spied on for our trade union activities, but we’ve also been spied on because we take part in anti-racist and anti-fascist activities. The latest attack in the guise in the form of the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill would license the extension of those attacks on our right to protest and organise, and enable the role of undercover policing to spy on us in those undemocratic ways.

The ruling class in this society, across the world, has a long history of attacking and undermining democracy. We have had to fight every step of the way, in this movement, and those who went before us, to demand the right to vote; the right to organise in trade unions; the right to education; the right to a health service. None of these things were given to us. They were all campaigned and fought for.

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