We need discussion and planning, not just rallies

An attendee reports on the 24 January “Defend the Right to Strike” meeting called by Strike Map, the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom, and others, which was billed as an “action planning” meeting as well as a rally.

We very much need spaces in which we can consider, debate and decide on how to take forward the fight against the Tories’ assault on the right to strike, and push for the broad labour movement to take it forward. Unfortunately, this really wasn’t one.

I don’t write this in order to score points or “get one over” on anyone. If we are going to seriously fight back against this attack, our movement needs to do better.

I find myself reaching for the word “talking shop”. But in fact, the meeting wasn’t even a talking shop, i.e., an opportunity for participants to put forward opinions and ideas.

After several top-table speakers, there was half an hour given over to smallish breakout groups – but followed by another hour-plus of speakers, not collective whole-meeting discussion, let alone decision-making. “We look forward to reading your ideas later”, said the chair. In other words the breakout groups functioned to give a (very thin) illusion of participation, taking up time while providing no opportunity to shape the meeting or indeed anything.

We gave out a Free Our Unions leaflet calling for a national demonstration to stop the minimum service bill, based on this article. There was no way to put this idea to the meeting as such, except to mention it in breakout groups.

The meeting was similar to the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom and Institute of Employment Rights conference in the same venue in December; about a hundred people there; mainly an older crowd; with some representation from union reps and officers. Still, those hundred people could have usefully discussed what kind of action is needed and possible. Perhaps such discussion is outside the organisers’ comfort zone, or habitual way of functioning.

Instead of discussion, we had top-table speech after top-table speech about what’s wrong with the Tories, about the importance of strikes and about how the minimum service bill is bad. The last was actually the most useful element of the meeting, since Keith Ewing and John Hendy explained very clearly and informatively the draconian and sweeping nature of the Tories’ attack on the right to strike.

Several speakers said things along the lines of “We must fight this by every means available”, but without actually suggesting anything beyond the raising the issue, as proposed by the TUC, on the 1 February strike day. No speaker even hinted at a national demonstration against the bill.

RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch seemed to fall back to the narrative that was dominant in the unions before the bill was published, namely that if passes, well, we will fight harder in our struggles. He said the bill was certain to pass. Now, it may well be the case it passes, even given a much bigger campaign. And we should certainly work to get past and, where possible, defy all anti-strike laws. But, in practice if not in intention, this is fatalism parading as militancy.

The Tories are introducing these new restrictions for a reason, just as they had reason to introduce all the previous restrictions – which did, have and do continue to have an impact. Straightforward defiance of new restrictions is necessary, but it may not be easy or always effective – even more than with current restrictions (it’s also not clear that anyone is proposing a clear plan for defiance). We should do our best to stop the new law. And even if we fail in that, a strong and vibrant campaign will put us in a better position to not be intimidated, minimise the impact of new restrictions, defy as much as possible, and eventually win repeal.

By itself, a national demonstration is not going to stop this attack. But having one is necessary to building a serious campaign. Free Our Unions will continue to agitate for it to happen.

There was also very little mention of what the labour movement should demand in terms of repealing anti-union laws and in terms of positive legal rights. In a stumbling and not very radical way, Prison Officers Association general secretary Steve Gillan was actually the only one to raise this issue, rightly pointing out that winning repeal depends on a Labour government and that “we need to hold Labour to account on this”.

Unfortunately, in addition to not advocating anything concrete to achieve that, Gillan wrongly claimed that Labour’s “New Deal for Workers” commits to “repealing all anti-union laws” (his exact words). In fact it doesn’t say that, not even on paper – on the right to strike it is vague. But an organised fight to demand and win this commitment is certainly necessary. The fact the 24 January meeting avoided that discussion, too, was another thing that made it a missed opportunity.

Join Free Our Unions at our next open organising meeting on Tuesday 7 February, 7pm. Details here.

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