After 22 May

A discussion article by a Free Our Unions supporter.

The 22 May demo against the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill symbolised the problem with the labour movement’s response to the Bill and to anti-union laws more broadly.

It’s good that the TUC called a demonstration on the day the Commons voted on the House of Lords amendments to the Bill (all of which were defeated – the Bill now returns to the Lords, who may however decide not to push back again). It was good to join comrades from various unions and organisations in Parliament Square and talk afterwards. It’s not good that there were, at a real push, only a thousand people there. Not good: but not entirely surprising.

I would have expected a somewhat bigger turnout – but if you do nothing serious to campaign against a law for months, you might find a demo called at short notice right at the end doesn’t mobilise people very effectively.

The RMT, to its credit, called a couple of demonstrations earlier in the year, but on a Monday night and also only about a thousand. The issue of the right to strike was raised on the big 1 February strike day, but rather mutedly. Since then, as far as I can see, pretty much nothing until 22 May. No national demonstration, no days of action with local protests, no campaign of meetings even.

The FBU called, quite late on, for the TUC to call a national demo against the Minimum Service Levels law, and a special TUC Congress to discuss campaigning. Given it was clear the TUC wasn’t going to do those things, the question arose of what the FBU itself would do to make them happen. Then quickly the 22 May vote came.

Some other unions, for instance the RMT, have had formal policy in favour of a national demo for much longer, but done nothing about it.

Free Our Unions, which organised the first on the streets protest against the Minimum Service Levels thread, with Earth Strike, back in October, has campaigned consistently for a much more serious campaign including a real national demo.

What now? Some speakers on 22 May did talk about campaigning after the bill passes, but there very little in the way of practical proposals, even in broad outline.

Meanwhile speakers did call for a Labour government to repeal the MSL law – but failed to mention the 2016 Trade Union Act, which has created such problems for national strikes in the public sector, let alone the older anti-union laws. Every time the Tories introduce a new attack, the debate moves further to the right.

Here are some proposals for discussion in the labour movement:

1. Ideally, given the Bill has not yet passed, unions should call a proper national demonstration as soon as possible. Given the timescale, however, this will become increasingly difficult to argue. However we absolutely should argue for the FBU and as many other unions and union organisations as possible to call a national demonstration in the autumn. I mean a real national demonstration, on a Saturday, attempting to mobilise at least many thousands. By all means emphasise the Minimum Service law, but the central demand should be repeal of all anti-union laws. This should be followed by a national day or week of action, with local protests and activities.

2. The FBU and other organisations should organise a special labour movement conference to discuss campaigning on this issue, including what calls for defiance mean in practice.

3. We also need an organised labour movement initiative to demand, assert as clear movement policy and seek to win a commitment from the Labour Party to repeal all the anti-union laws.

With anti-union laws now piled up high, and an incoming Labour government very possibly likely to equivocate on repealing even the most recent ones, discussion about how we take forward this fight is urgent.

Join us on 8 June to discuss the next steps. Click here for details.

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