Featured

Covid-19 crisis: Protect the right to strike!

Already in the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve seen examples of workers taking industrial action, often to improve workplace safety. Outsourced cleaners, caterers, and porters at Lewisham Hospital walked out to demand the payment unpaid wages. Workers in Lambeth libraries took action to demand the closure of their workplaces. Postal workers in Bridgend struck, after bosses refuse to revise shift patterns and staffing levels to ensure safe distancing in the workplace.

Continue reading “Covid-19 crisis: Protect the right to strike!”
Featured

Resist the Tories’ new anti-strike law!

In his government’s first Queen’s Speech, Boris Johnson has announced that he plans to introduce new laws to restrict strikes. There could be little clearer indication of the class loyalties of his government than this.

Continue reading “Resist the Tories’ new anti-strike law!”

The Police Bill, unions, and strikes (Online briefing, 6:30pm Tuesday 27 April)

An online briefing for trade unionists. Log in via Zoom here.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill poses a grave threat to the freedom to protest and dissent. Free Our Unions is hosting this online briefing for trade unionists, delivered by Professor Gregor Gall, labour movement academic and activist.

Attendees will be briefed on:

• What’s in the bill
• How it might impact strikes and other industrial action
• How it could intersect with existing restrictions on strikes and union organisation

All trade unionists welcome.

Log in here via Zoom from 6:30pm on Tuesday 27 April.

Striking for the climate? Free Our Unions public meeting, Tuesday 13 April, 6:30pm

TUESDAY 13 APRIL, 6:30PM
LOG IN VIA ZOOM HERE.

Facebook event here.

Our window to stop and reverse worsening climate catastrophe is narrowing. To defeat climate change, we need to radical action from governments, and, ultimately, a change in how our economies are organised. To achieve that, workers need to take action.

But in the UK, workers are legally prohibited from striking over so-called “political” issues, such as climate change. Many unions have supported “climate strikes” by young people, but the restrictive legislative framework we face holds us back from fully using our own power.

This public meeting will discuss that legislation, how we can confront it, and what kind of action workers might need to take to address the climate crisis.

Speakers:

Ian Byrne, MP for Liverpool West Derby
Ian is a Labour MP and a member of the Socialist Campaign Group.

Fliss Premru, Campaign Against Climate Change Trade Union Group
Fliss is a former transport worker and trade union activist, who has been active on environmental and climate issues for many years.

A Fire Brigades Union (FBU) activist
Climate change is an immediate workplace issue for fire fighters, as they deal with the impact of increasing extreme weather events. The FBU has been a leading voice in the labour movement, including the Labour Party, for a socialist “Green New Deal”, and against anti-strike laws.

An activist from Earth Strike UK
Earth Strike is a group of anti-capitalist activists active around the issue of climate change, building towards strikes to demand climate action.

…and more tbc.


Log in via Zoom here from 6:30pm.
Meeting ID: 816 0963 0008
Passcode: 937779

Composite motion for Momentum policy primary

UPDATE: The Momentum policy primary is now open. For more info, including on how to vote, click here.

Free Our Unions, the Fire Brigades Union, and two local Momentum groups (Brent and Southampton) submitted similar motions to the “policy primary” Momentum is currently running to determine which motions it will encourage supporters to submit to their Constituency Labour Parties to go forward to Labour’s 2021 conference. We have now agreed a single composite, the text of which is pasted below.

Momentum is due to publish shortlisted motions on 18 March. Momentum members will then vote in a ballot from 24 to 29 March to determine which motions Momentum will promote.

We encourage supporters who are members of Momentum to vote for our motion, and consider submitting to their CLPs.


Unshackling workers from draconian anti-trade union laws

The pandemic has amplified the need for workers to guarantee their safety and working conditions. Draconian cuts and lack of investment in public services have undermined resilience and caused workers to be further exposed to the effects of the ‘free’ market.

Waves of job cuts, attacks on terms and conditions (e.g., “fire and rehire”) and plans to scrap sectoral collective bargaining, including in the fire and rescue service, have continued throughout this crisis.

Conference notes TUC policy that workers should be: “represented by an independent union; strike/take industrial action by a process, at a time, and for demands of their own choosing, including in solidarity with any other workers, and for broader social and political goals; and picket freely”. 

Conference reaffirms the commitment to repealing all anti-union laws to ensure that workers have power in their workplaces.

This commitment includes repealing anti-strike laws, such as the ban on striking in solidarity with other workers or over political issues – an affront to democracy. These laws prevent workers from taking action directly over issues such as climate change, equality issues, and the NHS.

Conference denounces the Tories’ plan to impose new restrictions on transport workers through a “minimum service requirement”- it seems likely they will extend this to other groups of key workers.

Conference resolves that the party will actively drive trade union membership amongst all party members, campaign for the repeal of all anti-trade union laws, and that the next Labour government will repeal all anti-trade union laws.

(248 words)

Solidarity strikes with NHS workers?

A contribution to discussion. Picture above shows NHS nurses in front of a union banner held by South Wales miner, on strike in solidarity to demand higher pay for NHS staff.

Free Our Unions activists report discussions at work about supporting NHS workers’ pay demands, and colleagues saying they would be willing to strike in support of the NHS 
workers.

It’s a good idea, and good that it’s being discussed. We should try to spread the discussion more widely. If you’d like to discuss this idea, get in touch: freeourunions@gmail.com

Solidarity action of this sort was once relatively common in the UK, and particularly solidarity with NHS workers. NHS strikes in 1982 and 1988 saw very widespread support from other trade unionists – and in many cases solidarity strikes. Miners, postal workers, steel workers, local government workers, dockers, Fleet Street printers, autoworkers, bus workers, school workers and others took such industrial action.

Both disputes won significant pay rises in the NHS.

We plan to carry interviews with workers who took part in solidarity action in the 1980s soon. There are more barriers now. For one thing, “secondary action” of this sort, limited by the 1980 Employment Act, was completely banned by the 1990 Act of the same name. For another, union leaders, organisers and even activists tend to be more reticent about arguing for action outside the framework of the anti-union laws than they were in past decades. More generally, the tradition of solidarity action has died away and the memory of it faded.

But now, with the health workers’ pay fiasco, in the context of the pandemic, we should ask: If not this, what? If not now, when?

Despite the anti-union laws, workers in various industries regularly take unofficial action of various sorts and get away with it. There has been quite a bit of such action during the pandemic. It would be very hard for the government to target workers supporting a cause like NHS pay.

Workplace and labour movement activists should discuss what is possible.

More broadly, these issues highlight the need for the labour movement to campaign urgently to repeal all the anti-union laws, including the ban on solidarity action, the ban on action for political goals, and the imposition of carefully controlled procedures for deciding on action.

The ban on solidarity action is, in the words of the Fire Brigades Union, “an outrage against democracy” – and, in the words of the Institute of Employment Rights, against “the whole ethos of the trade union movement”. Fighting to end it, and defying it where possible, is an acid test for the labour movement’s seriousness.

Further reading:

“The anti-union laws: an acid test for a Corbyn government”, Clarion magazine, January 2018

An article surveying the role of electricians’ union leader Sean Geraghty in leading action of Fleet Street electricians in solidarity with NHS workers in 1982, COHSE history blog

An article on South Wales miners’ 1982 strike in solidarity with NHS workers, London Met TUC archive

How anti-union laws harm the fight for disabled people’s rights

By Janine Booth, Secretary, RMT Disabled Members’ Advisory Committee

Britain’s anti-trade-union legislation makes it harder for unions to fight for the rights of disabled workers and disabled people more generally. How?


Limiting issues on which unions may lawfully take action

Trade unions may take lawful industrial action only in pursuit of ‘bona fide trade disputes’.

So, unions may strike to defend their members’ jobs, but not for the right to work or benefits for all, including disabled people.

Trade unions are allowed to strike for higher pay for their own members, but not against benefit sanctions against disabled claimants.

In 2014, the Tory-LibDem government announced the closure of the Independent Living Fund that provided grants to high-needs disabled people to enable them to live in the community rather than in residential care. No matter how much this affected workers in our personal lives, no matter how strongly we felt about this blatant injustice, the law barred all but those few who worked in running the fund from striking to defend it.

The law allows trade unions only to act ‘selfishly’, and then when they do, the Tories and the media denounce them for being selfish!


Jumping through hoops

The law allows trade unions to call industrial action on these workplace issues, but only after following an onerous list of procedural requirements.

So, you might have blatant disability discrimination at work, for example a disabled workmate being sacked, or the employer imposing a discriminatory policy. But to take action, you have to hold a postal ballot, give two lots of notice (one of one week, one of two weeks) and hand over a huge volume of information before you can even take action.

If the union makes any errors during this process – even minor ones – then the employer may ask the court to ‘injunct’ the industrial action ie. to order it not to take place until a full hearing can take place.

And even if the union follows the procedure flawlessly, by the time it has done so, your workmate’s been sacked, the policy is in place, and you are fighting a rearguard action.

By contrast, employers don’t have to give notice or hold postal ballots before attacking the workers’ rights or conditions.


Draining the political fund

Similarly, employers may spend money on political donations and political lobbying – for example, against stronger requirements on them to be accessible to disabled people – without workers having to opt in to the product of our labour being spent in this way.

But under the law, we do have to opt in to our own trade unions’ political funds to spend money on political lobbying in the interests of union members and working-class people more generally. The requirement for trade unions to hold separate funds for political campaigning and representation came in an anti-union law passed over a century ago. Unions may only pay for campaigning – for example for stronger laws against disability discrimination – from this fund.

Further legislation weakened these funds by allowing members to opt out of them, then in 2016, the Tory government’s Trade Union Act changed this to a requirement to opt in, so that a union member has to positively assent to make their (very small) contribution to the fund. It is easy to miss this opt-in when signing up to a union. This was a deliberate move by the Tories to limit the resources available to trade unions to campaign against discriminatory and anti-union government policies.


Only by post

The law requires industrial action (and union election) ballots to be conducted solely by post. Despite having a ‘digital by default’ policy for itself, the government will not allow trade unions to use modern technology to enable their members to vote more easily or to take votes in the workplace.

This presents a barrier to some disabled people, particularly those with impairments that making it more difficult to receive, fill in by hand and post a ballot form.

While insisting on an antiquated voting method that reduces turnout, the law now requires industrial action ballot to reach a turnout threshold!

It does not apply this to other areas of political and civil life. In fact, many of the MPs who voted for this legislation would not even be in Parliament if these thresholds had applied to their elections.


Yet more restrictions

Law after law has restricted various aspects of effective trade unionism, for example picketing, and intensified state regulation of trade union affairs.

The Tories introduced most of these laws, not to democratise unions, as they claimed, but in order to shackle and neutralise trade unions.


More to come

The next anti-union law on the Tories’ agenda is to require a minimum service to run during rail and transport strikes. So, even if the union has a bona fide trade dispute, meets all the requirements, and the ballot passes all the thresholds, it will still not be allowed to call an all-out strike. The law will require the union to collaborate in minimising the effect of its own action.

This plan was among the Conservative Party’s pledges in the 2019 general election, and while it has not pursued it so far, we expect that when the pandemic passes its peak, it will bring this unfair and repressive proposal forward. We also expect that it will promote the new law by referring to the rights of passengers, including disabled passengers. This is appalling hypocrisy from a Tory government with a record of systematic attacks on disabled people, and a cynical use of disabled people as a pretext to restrict the right to strike. Contrary to Tory claims, it is in the interests of disabled people to defend the right to strike, and to reject attempts to divide transport workers and passengers against each other.

Know your enemy!

A discussion paper written by right-wing lobbyist Nicholas Finney arguing for further restrictions on strikes, and discussing how these restrictions could work, has been uploaded to the Academia website.

Although the paper is undated, and appears to be unfinished, it has clearly been written in the last few years, since the imposition of the 2016 Trade Union Act.

Free Our Unions encourages supporters to read the paper. It’s always worth knowing how the other side is thinking. Although Finney is not a politician, civil servant, or Tory official, his paper gives some insight into considerations the Tories are likely to be making with regards to their manifesto commitment to introduce “minimum service requirements” to restrict transport workers’ strike.

Finney is an arch-Thatcherite, and the former director of the National Association of Port Employers. In this capacity he led campaigning to scrap the Dock Labour Scheme, which enshrined certain workplace and union rights for dockers.

The paper can also be directly downloaded here (NB: clicking the link will download a .doc file to your computer).

Support Myanmar’s workers, striking for democracy

Free Our Unions salutes the struggle of workers in Myanmar for their rights and for democracy, and calls on the British labour movement to step up to support their fight.

We note and urge others to note the central role being played there by a political general strike against the military coup and for democracy, the “Civil Disobedience Movement”. The strike and associated protests have already faced repression: two people were killed at a protest by striking shipyard workers.

Workers everywhere in the world need the right to form, join and organise through independent unions; to strike by a process, at a time and for any demands of their own choosing, including in solidarity with any other workers and for wider social and political goals; and to picket freely, anywhere.

We must fight for free trade unions, untrammeled by state control, anti-union laws and employer interference, everywhere.

• One of Myanmar’s union federations, the All Burma Federation of Trade Unions, has launched an appeal for funds to support the “Civil Disobedience Movement” – see here. Please donate and share!

• Several UK trade unions and campaign groups including No Sweat and War on Want have published a statement supporting Myanmar’s workers’ struggle. Read the statement on the No Sweat website here.

Model motion for Labour Party conference

Free Our Unions encourages supporters active in the Labour Party to submit motions based on the below model text to their local parties, for submission to Labour Party conference 2021. The deadline for CLPs to submit motions to the conference is 13 September. If the motion is endorsed by your branch or CLP, email us at freeourunions@gmail.com to let us know!


The pandemic, in which many workers have needed to take fast, decisive action to guarantee safety for themselves, their loved ones, and the wider community, without going through an arduous bureaucratic process, has underscored the need to scrap all anti-strike laws. So does the wave of job cuts and attacks on terms and conditions (e.g., “fire and rehire”).

Other anti-strike laws, such as the ban on workers striking in solidarity with other workers, and on striking over political issues, are also an affront to democracy. They prevent workers from taking action directly over issues such as defence of the NHS, climate change, or racism.

Conference denounces the Tories’ plan to impose new restrictions on transport workers’ strikes through a “minimum service requirement”. It seems likely they will extend this to other groups of key workers.

Conference notes TUC Congress 2020 agreed to “organise a special conference… on opposing the anti-union laws” and a national demonstration. The party will encourage CLPs to support and get involved in these when they become possible.

Conference reaffirms the party’s opposition to all anti-union and anti-strike legislation, its commitment to repealing all such laws when next in government, and to legislating to enshrine workers’ rights to, as per TUC policy: “join, recruit to, and be represented by an independent union; strike/take industrial action by a process, at a time, and for demands of their own choosing, including in solidarity with any other workers, and for broader social and political goals; and picket freely”.

(248 words)

A letter to the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs

Dear comrades,

We’re writing in response to your recent pamphlet Winning the Future: Socialist Responses to the Coronavirus Crisis. Well done on producing it – it’s a contribution to the urgent task of raising the labour movement’s ambitiousness and confidence in difficult times.

In the spirit of your call for the pamphlet to be “widely read and debated in the labour and trade union movement”, we’d like to propose a way in which its demands could be strengthened. As the pamphlet indicates, workers’ rights are key. In turn, the right to strike is key – both to underpinning all workers’ rights and to the fight for all our movement’s demands.

In the articles by Claudia Webbe and John McDonnell, the pamphlet calls for repeal of the 2016 Trade Union Act and other important changes. But it is less clear on repealing the other anti-union/anti-strike laws, those introduced in the 1980s and 90s under Thatcher and Major. The Covid crisis has highlighted how it is not just the Trade Union Act which stymies workers taking action. The ability of workers to act quickly and decisively to defend safety and rights is curbed by the earlier laws which created arduous procedures for strikes to be legal. The Trade Union Act of course made these procedures more arduous still.

Moreover these earlier anti-union laws prevent industrial action for anything other than narrowly defined “trade dispute” issues. It was illegal for unions in the UK to organise strikes alongside the student climate strikers; it would be illegal for unions to organise strikes to say Black Lives Matter (as some workers in the US have done).

Solidarity action between different groups of workers, which the Institute of Employment Rights rightly called fundamental to “the whole ethos of the trade union movement”, is also banned. The laws even before 2016 were a bosses’ charter to prevent strikes from happening in various ways. And while reasserting collective bargaining is crucial, it is surely true that “collective bargaining without the right to strike is collective begging”.

Yet over the years, a norm has developed in the labour movement of demanding repeal only of the 2016 Act and either saying nothing about the earlier anti-union laws or suggesting in an unclear way that they can be dealt with without repealing them. Greater clarity and radicalism is necessary.

We need positive legal rights to strike, to picket and so on. But we should be clear that these rights are not compatible with the restrictions contained in the Thatcherite laws. Those laws also need to be repealed. The formula popularised by Bob Crow of the RMT, “repeal and replace”, is still right.

This is also an issue of Labour Party and labour movement democracy. Labour conference has voted repeatedly for repeal of all the anti-union laws, most recently in 2019, when it voted in two separate motions that “in power Labour will… repeal all anti-union laws”. Conference 2017 made explicit that it was demanding “repeal” not just of the Trade Union Act, but also “anti-union laws introduced in the 1980s and 90s”.

Polling by Rebecca Long-Bailey’s leadership campaign found that Labour members supported this stance by a ratio of 5-1. TUC Congress 2019 noted that “the anti-trade union laws – not just the 2016 Trade Union Act, but multiple laws going back to 1980 – continually undermine workers’ ability to organise and campaign”; and voted “to campaign, and encourage affiliated unions and trades councils to campaign, for the repeal of all anti-union laws”. The left should be championing this policy decided democratically by party and union members.

Again, winning a strong right to strike is essential not just to guaranteeing workers’ rights but to the labour movement’s ability to fight for all its demands, and for social change more generally. We look forward to discussing and working with you on these issues.

Riccardo la Torre, for the Free Our Unions campaign

Free Our Unions public meeting, Tuesday 2 March, 6:30pm

CONFRONTING ANTI-UNION LAWS

Tuesday 2 March, 6:30pm-8pm

Log in via Zoom here.

How have recent and ongoing workers’ struggles confronted restrictive anti-strike and anti-union legislation, and what effect would it have on those struggles if those restrictions were removed?

We’ll hear from speakers involved in disputes and campaigns about how they’ve dealt with these issues, and how the labour movement can step up our fight for a real right to strike and organise.

Speakers:

Gerry Carroll MLA will discuss his “Trade Union Freedom Bill” in the Stormont Assembly, which aims to repeal Thatcherite anti-union laws in the north of Ireland.

Mark Porter, Unite convenor at the Rolls Royce plant in Barnoldswick, will discuss the recent “Battle for Barnoldswick”, sustained strikes which succeeded in staving off job cuts, and will discuss how the campaign dealt with the challenges posed by anti-union laws.

Michelle Rodgers, National President of the RMT union, will discuss the Tories’ proposed laws which will mandate “minimum service requirements” during transport workers’ strikes.

Also invited:

A striker from the Sage care home in north London, where the United Voices of the World union is navigating laws on union recognition which are weighted in favour of employers.

Log in via Zoom here.