Discussion: The “Workers’ Bill of Rights” is welcome, but we need clarity and drive on right to strike

This discussion article was written by a Free Our Unions supporter. We welcome responses and further contributions. Email freeourunions@gmail.com with submissions.

At its event in London on 3 December, the Institute of Employment Rights (IER) called for comments on and responses to its new Workers’ Rights in Times of Crisis pamphlet and the “Workers’ Bill of Rights for an Age of Crisis” that concludes it. Here are some comments. It would be much appreciated if IER, and connected organisation CTUF, republish this article on their websites.

The pamphlet is an excellent educational resource, drawing together key facts about the situation facing workers in the UK and how it is shaped by the increasingly disastrous framework of labour law. I hope the IER will put the text or a PDF online for free at some point.

The “Workers’ Bill of Rights” proposals, focused on restoring and expanding collective bargaining between unions and employers (but ranging much more widely), are welcome and useful. The pamphlet is also right to call for escalated pressure on the Labour Party, not complacency that a Labour government will automatically make a difference

I want to focus on the right to strike, the main focus of Free Our Unions and a decisive issue for workers’ rights more broadly, for the labour movement’s wider demands, and indeed for all struggles for social justice.

The fact we currently face a bitter defensive struggle is no reason to stop thinking about these longer-range demands. Whether or not we defeat the new minimum service law, the question will remain what the labour movement’s positive demands are and, very practically, which laws a Labour government will repeal and which it will keep. The labour movement must actively shape that argument – indeed ensure it is an argument at all – pushing for the strongest possible right to strike and the maximum trade union freedom. Otherwise we face a repeat of what happened under Blair, when all the anti-union laws were maintained, paving the way for new restrictions later on.

During the period when the IER was advising Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership, it increasingly soft-pedalled and retreated on the question of repealing all anti-strike / anti-union laws.

The new pamphlet represents a shift back towards a clearer position. It eloquently explains the need for solidarity action – strikes in support of other workers, with a different employer – to be legalised, and for the labour movement to be forthright and unapologetic in making this demand.

Let us note but leave aside for now the question of why a left-wing Labour leadership was the occasion for the IER to make an opportunist shift: the exact opposite of what was necessary! On the right to strike at least, the demands in the Workers’ Bill of Rights are still insufficiently clear. What it says is good, but needs concretising.

It says:

“Every worker shall have the right to participate in industrial action for the protection and promotion of their economic, social and political interests and not to be penalised for doing so, and every union shall have the right to organise and support industrial action, subject only to the rules of the trade union in question.”

That is much stronger than what the IER mostly said in 2015-19, and particularly 2017-19, pointing strongly in the right direction.

But in addition to these general principles, we need clarity on the essential point that to establish those rights we need to win repeal of all the anti-strike / anti-union laws, back to the first one passed under Thatcher in 1980. We need their replacement with strong legal rights – but repeal is essential.

We also need to spell out more definitely, concretely and specifically the rights we want, both in terms of removing current restrictions and the positive legal rights that should replace them. This must include rights for workers and unions:

• To strike / take industrial action at times, for demands and by decision-making processes of their own choosing.
• To picket any workplace, in any numbers.
• To strike / take industrial action in solidarity with any workers.
• To strike / take industrial action over any issue, including any broader social or political question.

Last but not least, need a mass agitational campaign in the labour movement to establish clear and active support for these demands, as the precondition for winning them.

The IER should work with Free Our Unions and others to make this happen.

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