Firefighters’ union calls for national demonstration and emergency TUC Congress to fight anti-strike bill: what next?

By Mohan Sen

The call from the national Executive Council of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) for new and escalated mobilisation to stop the government’s Minimum Service Levels (MSL) anti-strike bill is extremely welcome. (See here for the statement from the FBU EC, here for the
union’s public announcement of it, and here for their tweet.)

The FBU calls for the TUC to organise a national demonstration and hold a special TUC Congress to discuss how to stop the MSL law (or, if it has passed, how to defeat it through “mass non-cooperation and non-compliance”). In somewhat vaguer terms, it calls for mobilisation and organisation to defeat the law whether or not the TUC acts.

Some questions are posed by the FBU’s welcome intervention.

Calling for the TUC to organise a demonstration is necessary: of course the FBU and others should also pursue things on on that level. But the TUC seems unlikely to do it (as TUC General Secretary Paul Nowak’s bland response to the FBU’s call), and time is short. What else should labour movement activists argue for? Particularly given the call for action regardless of the TUC, shouldn’t we also call on the FBU to initiate the organisation of a demonstration itself, drawing in as many others at different levels of the labour movement as possible? Although it is a relatively small union, it surely has the weight and profile to do so.

And if there is no special TUC Congress, will the FBU initiate a labour movement conference of some sort at which officers, reps and activists can discuss how to organise this fight?

The background

Free Our Unions has been calling for mass protests to stop the MSL proposals since last summer, before the actual bill was published. In October we organised the first on-the-streets protest specifically against this threat, at the Department of Business headquarters in London, together with Earth Strike and others. At that stage most union leaders were effectively dismissing the idea of protests, talking only about future defiance and civil disobedience after the law passed.

Early this year, after the bill was published, the RMT organised two protests. They were much bigger than the eighty or a hundred people we mobilised in October, but probably only in the region of a thousand (both held on Monday nights).

Then the TUC made opposition to the MSL bill part of the 1 February day of strikes (#righttostrike). That was good, but all reports indicated that off social media, on the picket lines and the streets, the issue was mostly not very prominent. In any case, there has been no follow up in two months since, a few thin TUC comments in the media aside.

The FBU EC is right. We need a serious national demonstration to stop the bill. By itself such a demonstration may well not be enough to win. But a vigorous real-world campaign against the bill is needed in order to maximise our chances of defeating or amending it; minimise how intimidated workers feel if it passes and therefore maximise the possibilities for defiance; and maximise how many restrictions we can get repealed under a Labour government.

Without relatively large on-the-streets protests, it will not be a vigorous campaign. Local protests are much needed too, but a national demonstration is an important way to catalyse a movement. People in the labour movement often talk, with more or less substance, about the strikes that neutralised the Industrial Relations Act in 1972 (the Pentonville Five). But they often miss out a crucial point: those strikes came after very large demonstrations to stop the Industrial Relations Bill in 1971 – in fact, the largest demonstrations in the UK since the 1920s.

In contrast, the 2016 Trade Union Act went through with minimal protests. We are at severe risk of that happening again. All that is why FOU has continued agitating for a national demonstration. It is why, in response to the FBU’s initiative, I pose the questions at the top of this article.

A final observation: it’s right to focus immediately on defeating the MSL Bill. But we also need to renew and escalate the fight to repeal all anti-strike/anti-union laws, back to the Thatcherite laws of the ‘80s. The statement discussing this that the FBU EC has put to the union’s upcoming conference expresses, in general form, the right position. How do we put it into practice?

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