Welwyn walkout shows how workers can win

By a Free Our Unions supporter

On 10 May, refuse workers in the Hertfordshire town of Welwyn Hatfield launched an unofficial strike to deal with a manager they said was sexist, racist, and bullying.

A hundred refuse, recycling, and maintenance workers employed by commercial waste contractor Urbaser, members of Unite, refused to work and made it clear they would not go back until the manager went.

A report in Socialist Worker quotes workers vividly describing the manager’s behaviour and how their workplace has been run. Workers also described how outsourcing had made their situation at work much worse. Union campaigns for insourcing have won important victories; this demand needs taking up and fighting for by the whole labour movement, including the Labour Party.

Workers signed a grievance letter and the manager was sent home while an investigation took place; but the investigation was not serious and the manager was set to return. The workers decided to walk out, stopped bin collections and gathered outside the council offices to discuss where to go next. And they won – the manager is gone.

This small strike demonstrates in miniature some hugely important things – including the power workers when they take action with determination and militancy, including power to challenge oppression. And the fact that effective workers’ action will very often mean not going through the hoops set up by the anti-union laws. As one striker said: “We knew what we were doing was an unofficial walkout and that it was illegal, but we all felt so strongly we knew we had to do it.”

Between the General Strike of 1926 and the 1966 seamen’s strike, there were no national strikes in the UK. There were large and growing numbers of smaller disputes, often extremely small local ones, in which workers took direct action with no or little reference to their national union, just walking out to bring their managers or bosses to heel.

One factor is that there were no anti-union laws of the sort introduced after 1979. Unions did not need to clear multiple procedural and bureaucratic hurdles to declare official action; they could decide to simply declare unofficial action official; local union organisations often had much greater leeway to make their own decisions; and all this helped the creation of both powerful working-class militancy and a situation in which it was very hard for bosses to treat even wildcat action as something illegitimate.

Like other small disputes in recent years, the Welwyn Hatfield workers’ action – refusing to buckle under to the anti-union laws – shows the way for workers to deal with the dire and mounting problems we face. At the same time, it shows the need for a concerted campaign to scrap the anti-union laws, all of them, to create the best possible conditions for such action to thrive.

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