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!”

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!”

Labour policy on the anti-union laws: build back better!

By Sacha Ismail

At a recent meeting organised by the Labour Representation Committee, I asked speaker Laura Pidcock, former shadow Secretary of State for Employment Rights, about Labour’s policy on the right to strike during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

I asked why, in terms of scrapping anti-strike laws, the party generally limited itself to repealing the 2016 Trade Union Act, saying little about the many earlier anti-union laws or leaving things vague. Laura’s response was that Labour’s policy on workers’ rights was much broader than just scrapping the Trade Union Act. That’s undoubtedly true, but it didn’t answer the question, as I intended it at least.

Labour’s 2019 “Workers’ Rights Manifesto” can be read here. It is along the same lines as the sections on workers’ rights in the party’s main manifesto, but goes into more detail. As even a quick scan makes clear, the party did indeed put forward a wide range of policies to strengthen both individual workers’ rights and the position of trade unions. It was good – but nonetheless its policy specifically on the right to strike was inadequate.

Without a strong right to strike and the repeal of all anti-union laws necessary to achieve this, many of the other changes Labour advocated – for instance on reinstating and expanding collective bargaining – would be difficult to achieve and/or would not empower workers to organise and fight, at least not enough. (For what Free Our Unions said about the Labour manifesto in 2019, see “Labour’s manifesto and the right to strike: a welcome step forward, more to fight for”.)

• Like the general manifesto, the Workers’ Rights Manifesto went further than the party leadership had previously. It said it would “Repeal anti-trade union legislation, including the Conservatives’ undemocratic Trade Union Act 2016, and create new rights and freedoms for trade union unions to help them win a better deal for working people, negotiate better pay and quality of working life and enable people to organise in their workplace if they wish to.” That’s good but unclear. Would a Corbyn government have left some anti-union legislation in place?

• It promised to “Remove unnecessary restrictions on industrial action and allow people to take industrial action through their trade union when they feel it’s the only option left against bad and unreasonable employers.” Leaving aside the apologetic tone, which restrictions are “necessary”?

• It promised to “Allow workers and trade unions to use secure electronic and workplace balloting.” That would be an improvement, but the inescapable implication is that strict controls on how workers decide to take action would remain. There would be no return to workers and unions being able to decide themselves how to take decisions on action, as before the 1980s. No voting more informally in meetings, or walking out without warning the employer.

• The WRM said nothing about the right to take action in solidarity with other workers, or for demands on political issues like climate change. It clearly implied that these kinds of actions would remain illegal.

Other pledges, such as “restrict[ing] the grounds on which employers can resort to legal action based on technicalities to override legitimate, democratic decisions taken by the people who work for them”, were of course welcome.

All this was much, much more limited than the policy demanded by repeated Labour Party conferences, by numerous unions and by TUC Congress 2019. (And by the wider Labour membership, according to opinion polling.)

As Keir Starmer seeks to roll back from the pro-worker, pro-trade union policies advocated by the party in 2019, the left must unite to defend them. But we should “build back better” by fighting to put Labour policy on a clearer, more solid basis when it comes to the right to strike – in line with the position agreed by the democratic structures of the party and the unions.

First of all, repealing all the anti-union laws, not just the Trade Union Act, needs to become the established position of the Labour left.

Has picketing been banned in the new lockdown?

In November 2020, Unite pursued a legal challenge over the right to picket during lockdown, after a picket of bus workers was broken up by police. That challenge was successful, clearly establishing the right to picket in lockdown.

Exception 22 of the “Coronavirus: The Health Protection (Coronavius, Restrictions) (All Tiers) (England) Regulations 2020” clearly states that picketing is exempt from lockdown restrictions, provided:

  • the gathering is for the purposes of picketing which is carried out in accordance with the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, and
  • the gathering organiser takes the required precautions in relation to the gathering.

But new guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service now states: “Note that picketing; protests; the Christmas period exception and permitted organised gatherings exceptions in Tier 3 do not apply in Tier 4 areas.”

The exact legal situation, now that the Tiers system has been superseded by a new national lockdown, is, at best, ambiguous. Legal advice sought by the United Voices of the World union suggested physical pickets in Sage care home workers’ strike from 15 January could be in breach of legal restrictions.

Speaking at the virtual rally in support of that strike, Labour MPs John McDonnell and Nadia Whittome pledged to challenge any legal restrictions on the right to protest and picket in Parliament.

A Trade Union Freedom Bill in Stormont: interview with Gerry Carroll MLA

Gerry Carroll is Northern Ireland Assembly Member (MLA) for Belfast West, and a member of People Before Profit (PBP). He spoke to Free Our Unions about PBP’s “Trade Union Freedom Bill”, which aims to reform legislation in the north of Ireland to make it easier for workers to organise and take action. For more info on the Trade Union Freedom Bill, click here.

Q: What’s the origin of the initiative?

A: We’re trying to proceed through Stormont [Northern Ireland Assembly] with a Private Members’ Bill to scrap restrictive anti-union legislation. Employment law is devolved to Stormont; it’s the only devolved authority which has power over trade union and employment legislation. The Welsh and Scottish governments don’t have this power.

We’re concerned about anti-union legislation and attacks on trade unionists across Britain and Ireland, but we have an opportunity in the north to challenge that legislation. Most of the legislative framework in the north comes from the Northern Ireland Labour Relations Order (1995). The 2016 Trade Union Act which was passed in Westminster doesn’t apply here, but most of the previous anti-union legislation, which mainly stems from the Thatcher governments and was left untouched by Labour governments between 1997-2010, does apply, and we’re trying to change that.

We want to remove the ban on solidarity action, which prevents workers from striking in support of other workers. We think this ban is undemocratic. The ban prevents even workers in the same workplace, in the same building, taking action in support of each other, if they’re employed by different bodies. We see this directly within Stormont itself, where some are employed by the Assembly Commission, and some are employed by the civil service… if civil service workers strike, Assembly Commission staff can’t strike in support of people who are effectively their immediate colleagues and workmates.

We want to remove the requirement for postal ballots in order to sanction official strike action. Unions should be able to decide for themselves what democratic procedure is best for them, including votes and ballots in the workplace itself. Postal ballots are unnecessarily restrictive.

Another aim is to simplify the information unions are required to submit to employers. Currently this process gives employers significant opportunities to challenge strike ballots on the basis of technicalities. We also want to reduce the notice periods required prior to balloting, and prior to taking action. The notice periods are designed to delay workers from taking action.

The Bill also aims to empower workers with greater rights to organise. It would lower the minimum number of union members required in a workplace before recognition can be achieved. Currently it’s 21, which is completely arbitrary. We’d aim to bring that down to five. We also want to expand the issues around which employers have to negotiate with unions, to include issues like contractual arrangements.

Our initiative has been informed by a wide consultation with unions and trade union activists. They feel the current legislation isn’t fit for purpose. It was passed in 1995, before Stormont event sat, and there’s been no public attempt to reform, amend, or rescind this legislation. The pandemic has exposed the fact that workers are put at greater risk by restrictive legislation that slows down their ability to take swift action over workplace issues, and their ability to take action in support of other workers.

Q: Has there been any indication of attempts to make the Tories’ proposed new legislation, further restricting transport workers’ rights to strike, apply in the north once that’s been brought forward in Westminster?

A: Nothing explicit, although they may try. The minister responsible is Diane Dodds of the DUP [Democratic Unionist Party], who may well wish to impose legislation like that, but she has responded to an official question on this to say there are currently no plans to alter trade union legislation. Of course that may change, but there’s nothing in place currently.

Q: What about the ban on political strikes, and the restriction of strikes to so-called “trade disputes” with employers?

A: That’s not a specific immediate focus, but the hope is that lifting the ban on solidarity action would open up the range of issues over which people can strike, by allowing workers to strike in support of other workers.

Q: Where are the next steps for the bill?

A: We’re due to meet the drafters in charge of drafting the legislative language this week. The bill then goes to the Assembly for stage one, although we don’t yet know when that will be. Subsequently there’ll be committee stages, amendment stages, and so on. A lot of the timetable is in the hands of the Assembly’s Business Committee. We hope there won’t be any attempt to scupper the submission and discussion of the bill, but we can’t be 100% confident about that.

We’re absolutely committed to pursuing this as far as we can. There’s been a dearth of discussion about trade unions and workers’ rights through Stormont, in large part because things are set up institutionally to focus on so-called “communal” issues rather than issues of class. Through this process we want to strengthen the wider labour movement and promote the benefits of trade unionism and a strong trade union movement.

The next Assembly elections are due for May 2022, so we’re told there should be enough time in theory to see this process through to completion before then. But at the very least, we’re highlighting the issues, including the democratic issue around the lack of consent people in the north gave to the Thatcherite laws.

Q: What is the culture in the wider labour movement around these issues? Is it something unions are active on? What links have you built with unions through taking this initiative?

A: The picture is mixed. We have had a good response from the labour movement to the initiative – sometimes from unions at a national level, but definitely from branches and hundreds of individual trade unionists. They know the current legislation was designed to slow down and prevent action. At the same time as we’re pursuing our bill, colleagues in the south are pursuing something similar in the Dail. The legislation there is different, but it’s still restrictive.

Q: Through the pandemic, we’ve seen several actions by workers which have tested the limits of the law, and in some cases straightforwardly broken them. Have there been any such struggles in the north?

A: Workers at a meat plant in Moy Park walked out in May due to unsafe conditions. An action like that is obviously of slightly ambiguous legality. Notionally it’s protected by health and safety legislation, but it depends on how those laws are interpreted and enforced. We want a situation where workers are clearly legally empowered to take action to improve their workplace conditions. What actions there have been have tended to be quite scattered. Unfortunately we’ve seen a lot of buy-in into narratives from employers around “all being in it together”.

Q: According to the UK TUC’s figures for union membership, Northern Ireland is comfortably near the top every year. There’s a higher trade union density there than in the south of Ireland. People from both communities in the north are working together every day, they’re members of the same unions. Can that be a source of hope for the north?

A: The Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (NIC-ICTU) represents 215,000 workers in the north, it is a much higher density than the UK average as well as the level in the south of Ireland. Belfast May Day is a bigger event than the Dublin event, and it’s one of the biggest in the UK. A cross-communal trade union movement is definitely a source of hope; even though people return to largely segregated housing and communities, there’s definitely hope in the fact that people are in the same workplaces, universities, and colleges, and in the same unions.

Q: What do you think are the likeliest sources of opposition to your bill?

A: It’ll probably be twofold. There’ll be predictable opposition from the right wing, for example from the DUP. These parties command significant electoral support from working-class people in the communities in which they’re based, but their opposition to reforms like this shows that they don’t at all stand for workers’ interests. It shows them up as the dinosaurs that they are; they’ve participated in the clapping for frontline workers but aren’t interested in legislative changes to give those workers more rights and power.

There may well also be opposition from political elements who say they support the proposals in principle, but think they go too far too quickly, and want to slow things down. There may be proposals of amendments to water down the legislation, which we’ll obviously mobilise to oppose.

UK union observers attend US trade union convention as it passes historic general strike resolution

By Daniel Randall, Assistant Chair, RMT Bakerloo branch

Reposted from the RMT London Calling website

Three activists from the RMT Bakerloo branch attended, via Zoom, the Saturday 21 November convention of the Vermont State Labour Council (AFL-CIO) as observers. The convention was attended by nearly 100 delegates and guests, from local union branches and campaign groups, as well as a number of elected city councillors. As a statewide federation, the rough equivalent to the Vermont AFL-CIO in the British labour movement would be one of the regions of the TUC, such as London, East, and South East TUC (formerly SERTUC).

The convention’s two major items of business were to discuss a resolution calling for a general strike in the event of an attempt by Donald Trump to sabotage and obstruct the election result, and to discuss a series of democratic reforms to the union federation’s own standing orders.

In opening the convention, Vermont AFL-CIO president David Van Deusen said the labour movement had to make itself a tribune of democracy: defending existing formal democracy against a potential Trump coup, but also fighting for a much fuller, more accessible democracy, including economic democracy, as well as transforming the movement itself to make it more democratic.

The business of the convention was conducted in a highly open and accessible fashion, with all delegates able to have their say, and propose amendments to the motions from the floor. Those expressing minority viewpoints were encouraged to speak up and share their views. Executive officers said that bringing the motion to the convention was an important way to give rank-and-file delegates input and ownership over strategy and perspectives, rather than simply having it determined from above.

In the discussion around the general strike resolution, delegates emphasised that the purpose was not merely to defend the victory of one man, Joe Biden, against another man, Donald Trump, but to make organised labour and workers’ action central to a wider movement against the authoritarianism, racism, and bigotry represented by Trumpism. Many delegates stressed their opposition to the neoliberal policy agenda of Biden and the Democratic Party leaders, and said the labour movement had to prepare for action to make demands of a Biden administration.

There was some debate over whether the motion was constitutionally admissible, given that local AFL-CIO federations are not able to directly call strikes or issue instructions to their affiliated unions. AFL-CIO national president Richard Trumka had written to the Vermont AFL-CIO to declare the resolution unconstitutional. Many delegates expressed frustration with his intervention, reminding the convention that the resolution was not intended to be a binding instruction but merely a call advocating a general strike in certain circumstances. One delegate asserted it would be good if President Trumka had been as quick to speak out on the need for unions to defend democracy as he had been to try to prevent discussion of the resolution.

In an indicative vote on the resolution, in which both delegates and observers were entitled to vote, 92% supported it. In the formal vote, the resolution was carried with 39 in favour, five against, and one abstention.

Although Vermont AFL-CIO is a small federation, representing around 10,000 workers, the adoption of the resolution has significant symbolism. It shows that activists in the US labour movement are thinking politically about the role of organised labour, including how to face down legal restrictions on workers’ ability to struggle in defence of rights in the workplace and wider society.

A political general strike would, in both Britain and America, be illegal; whilst simply demanding workers take illegal action without adequate preparation and organisation would have little grip, unions must challenge and ultimately defy the laws that shackle us.

RMT supports the Free Our Unions and the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom, which campaign against anti-union legislation. Such campaigning has to be stepped up, especially in the context of Tory plans to impose further restrictions on transport workers’ right to strike.

Following the adoption of the resolution, a workshop session was held to discuss strengthening rank-and-file engagement across unions. Vice President Tristin Adie gave a presentation on the principles of rank-and-file organising, looking at how these had been applied in a 2018 nurses’ strike in Vermont. The presentation emphasised the need for independent working-class organisation and self-activity. As Adie put it: “No-one is coming to save us.” Breakout groups discussed the challenges delegates faced in organising at work.

The convention’s final plenary session discussed and passed a series of reforms to the federation’s standing orders, which aimed to widen rank-and-file participation and increase the number of officer positions which were directly elected. Cold War-era language in the standing orders was replaced with new statements affirming the federation’s commitment to anti-racism and anti-fascism. It was an honour to attend the convention and witness the adoption of a historic resolution.

We hope to be able to welcome Vermont AFL-CIO activists to an RMT meeting in the near future.

Vermont AFL-CIO Resolution: Protect Democracy

November 21, 2020

WHEREAS, the Vermont AFL-CIO and our affiliates are committed to the defence of democratic rights and the institutions of democracy, regardless of the party affiliations of those in power;

WHEREAS, the Vermont AFL-CIO recognizes that democracy in the United States is hobbled by the archaic structure of the Electoral College and entrenchment of the two-party system;

WHEREAS, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have refused to acknowledge the results of the election in multiple key states and continue to mount frivolous lawsuits and various political interventions in a baseless attempt to overturn the November 3rd results;

WHEREAS, President Trump has refused, on multiple occasions, to denounce the activities of white supremacist militias and organisations that have stated desires to overthrow American democracy and instead has conveyed support for their actions;

WHEREAS, the Trump administration and Republican allies have conducted a concerted campaign to obstruct, sabotage, and reject a fair and complete count of presidential ballots by creating barriers to voting, targeted at people of colour, immigrants, women, and young people. These tactics include intimidation of BIPOC voters at polling places and requirements to have two people sign a ballot that hurt women voters, as well as dismantling key infrastructure such as the U.S. Postal Service;

WHEREAS, the Constitution requires voting results and Electoral College tallies to be completed and submitted to Congress by the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, and the new 2021 Congress to validate the results, and voters should be determining the results, not courts;

WHEREAS, Trump has denied science, resulting in more than 250,000 Americans dying from COVID-19, and millions more facing deep economic pain due to ongoing impact from the virus, and can do irreparable harm during a lame-duck session;

WHEREAS, the extreme risk currently posed to the historic institutions of democracy in our nation may require more widespread and vigorous resistance than at any time in recent history;

WHEREAS, the labour movement and trade unions have played a proud and vital role in protecting democracy and opposing authoritarianism in many nations throughout the world;

WHEREAS, the most powerful tool of the labour movement in our history has been the power of the general strike;

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Vermont AFL-CIO is empowered by the delegates at the 2020 state convention to call for a general strike of all working people in our state in the event that Donald Trump refuses to concede the office of President of the United States.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Vermont AFL-CIO will work with allies in the anti-racist, environmental justice, feminist, LGBTQ+, immigrant rights, and disability rights movements to protect our democracy, the Constitution, the law, and our nation’s democratic traditions;

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Vermont AFL-CIO will call on city and county governments to pledge to protect protesters defending democracy, and commit to not using police action or curfews to curtail these activities, and to use all available resources to stand up against any effort by the Trump administration to steal the presidential election.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Vermont AFL-CIO commits itself to the long-term goal of winning genuine democracy through the abolition of the Electoral College and two-party system, through the collective action of our affiliates and allied organisations.

Adopted by the seated Delegates at the November 21, 2020 Vermont AFL-CIO Convention

Opening address to the Convention from Vermont AFL-CIO president David Van Deusen

Union brothers and sisters, allies, working people, Vermonters…

There are times when the decisions we make, the actions, together, we agree to carry out or not, define us as a people, as a union, and as a labour movement. Today we may be standing on the precipice of one of those great historic moments.

No matter who you voted for in the U.S. election, the results are in. Trump lost by any measure. And while I am not now nor ever have been an acolyte of the neo-liberal policies of the national Democratic Party, I am a firm and unapologetic believer in democracy. And even while I see with clear eyes the great short comings of our democratic Republic (from systemic racism, sexism, xenophobia, and economic elitism to name but a few) I also know, as the Vermonter John Dewey once said, that “the only solution to the problems of democracy is more democracy.”

So I do not come before you today to ask only that you steel yourself for the defence of this election and this outcome; nor do I suggest that our problems as a working class and as a labour movement will somehow dissipate because one man lost an election while another won; far from it. The fact is, no matter which wealthy elite sits in the White House, we, as labour, must unequivocally grasp that it will only be through our unity, through our solidarity, through our collective action as a labour movement and as a working class that the economic chains that bind us will once and for all be shattered. And towards that day we, together, endeavour.

But make no mistake, the Trump administration persists in its refusal to accept the election outcome and seeks, even now, to retain their hold on power. At this very moment machinations are being hatched which aim to send delegates to the Electoral College who choose to NOT represent the will of the people. Instead these plotters seek to give form to the will of the present administration alone and the billionaires that stand behind him. And if by hook or by crook this administration, which has told armed neo-fascists to “stand-by”, manages to maintain its hold on power, the vestiges of democracy which persist in this Republic shall be extinguished for a generation if not more. We must not, cannot, and shall not allow this to happen.

And my friends, we are NOT weak. When united, when not divided by contrived notions of race, national origin, or gender, we are strong – union strong. After all, it is only through our labour that our state and our nation constitute themselves. As Big Bill Haywood once said: “All [working people] have to do is to put their hands in their pockets and they have got the capitalist class whipped.”

So my brothers and sisters, at this historic convention you will have a Vermont General Strike Authorisation Vote put before you in the event of a political coup in Washington. This resolution, which is recommended by your elected Executive Board, if passed, does not order you to strike. Rather it asks for your permission to allow your Executive Board to call for a strike and to do the hard work of organising one if our democratic Republic is threatened. Understand that if vested with this authority your leadership board will be judicious in exercising this power. It is only our intent to make this call if the democracy which we hold dear comes under a clear and imminent threat.

Over the last 20 years it has been my absolute honour and privilege to walk on picket lines with many of you, shoulder to shoulder. I have organised with you. I have sat at the bargaining table, shared in your struggles, dreams, losses, victories, and maybe even a tipped a few jars of whiskey along the way. And I have never known you to back away from that which you know to be right. So I ask you, as a union member and as a Vermonter, to consider the question of the collective defence of our democratic republic, and to not take this question lightly. I ask that you put aside any partisan leanings and that you ponder the resolution that will be considered later without fear of favour. I ask that you think simply about what is the right thing for us to do, together, should democracy come into existential crisis.

And here let us reflect on the words of Hannah Arendt when she says, “The sad truth of the matter is that most evil is done by people who never made up their minds to be or do either evil or good.” And brothers and sisters, it is my firm assertion that we are not those kind of people. But defending the democracy we have now, alone, is not enough. If we are to claim the mantle of “champions of democracy” we must live by that credo; and here we must seek to not only build a more direct participatory democracy here in Vermont, but also, through our unions, more economic democracy whereby working people have the security to not only live, but to live well. If you work 40 hours a week, you should not have to struggle to pay the bills.

We don’t just need liveable wages, we need prevailing wages. We need healthcare as a human right, and not as a bargaining chip we have to defend in each round of bargaining. We need to know that our kids have a clear path to college and technical training without going into debt for the rest of their lives. In brief, we need free tuition for our state colleges (and we can’t be closing down any campuses!). We also need to secure the tools required to unionise more shops, and for this we need card check. And we need to rebuild our Covid-shattered economy through a New Deal, a Green New Deal.

And while we struggle through the pandemic, putting our lives on the line, we need adequate PPE, safer working conditions, and hazard pay. And most of all we need to come together, be internally organised, united, and ready to support each other, each local [branch], when we are compelled to bring the fight to the bosses to achieve our aspirations, and in order to see our united program come into being. And of course, we also need to practice what we preach.

So as we defend democracy, struggle to build a more participatory democracy, seek to enlarge our Town Meeting rights, and as we fight to expand our economic democracy, we must also re-examine our own bylaws and our own Vermont AFL-CIO constitution so as to make ourselves truly a democratic labour organisation. And friends, it is your Executive Board’s hope and expectation that today, at this 2020 Vermont State Labour Council Convention, that united we will see through a number of democratic reforms which will vest more power and more authority with you, the rank and file. In conclusion, I thank you for the honour of serving as your President.

I ask that you and your families be safe and vigilant during this COVID-19 pandemic, and I thank you for standing united in defence of the better ideals of the Republic and for the kind of democratic change we know working people both desire and demand. United!

The Democrats, Labour, and “secondary boycotts”

Keir Starmer has praised Joe Biden and urged Labour to learn from the Democrats’ victory in the US presidential election.

Starmer should learn from the proposals on workers’ rights the Democrats made.

The Democratic Party platform promised to “prioritize passing the PRO Act and restoring workers’ rights, including the right to launch secondary boycotts”.

The US term “secondary boycotts” is used to describe different things, but in this context it means what in Britain is referred to as secondary action or solidarity action. That is, one group of workers taking industrial action in support of the demands of another group of workers – a right fundamental to effective working-class struggle and the whole ethos of the labour movement, but which is legally suppressed in both the US and Britain.

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO) is legislation already passed by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives (but not by the Republican-controlled Senate). While it could and should be much stronger, it is significant – and it includes restoring the right to solidarity action.

The Democratic leadership routinely ignores its own platforms, and if the Republicans keep control of the Senate that will give it an excuse to go quiet on the PRO. Nonetheless, it has both gone further and done more to make a noise about it than the Labour leadership here.

It is striking that Labour, even under Jeremy Corbyn, has been more reticent on these issues than the corporate-dominated Democratic Party.

The labour movement should insist Starmer and co. commit and campaign for a strong programme of workers’ and trade union rights, including the policy on repealing the anti-union laws passed by multiple Labour Party conferences. A strong right to strike, including in solidarity with other workers, must form the heart of that commitment.

Oppose union busting at the Crick Institute: defend Cetin Avsar!

Security guard and union activist Cetin Avsar has been threatened with dismissal by his employer, Wilson James Ltd., who said in a letter that his opposition to outsourcing, and role in leading a strike for direct employment in his previous workplace, St. George’s University of south London, represent a “conflict of interest”.

Cetin is currently working for Wilson James Ltd. on a contract at the Francis Crick Institute in King’s Cross, London, but has been told his “conduct has not reached the required standards.” The only issue cited for discussion at his probation review meeting is his opposition to outsourcing and his record of activism in the United Voices of the World union (UVW).

The UVW has launched a campaign to support Cetin, arguing the employer’s action violates Cetin’s human rights. UVW is asking supporters to write letters of protest to Wilson James Ltd. bosses.

For more, see the UVW website.

Government concedes right to picket during lockdown

Following a Unite legal challenge, the government has conceded the right to picket during lockdown.

We repost the following from the Unite website:

The government has been forced to confirm that workers taking lawful industrial action have a right to picket their workplace during the Covid-19 lockdown.

In doing so they have vetoed the actions of North Yorkshire police who last week told Unite workers taking lawful industrial action to desist from picketing on the morning after new coronavirus regulations were introduced.

Judicial review planned

A judicial review was due to be heard at the high court today (Friday 13 November) against the chief constable of North Yorkshire and the secretary of state for health and social care, but at the last minute the government conceded that the right to picket should be upheld.

The case emerged as a result of Unite members who were on strike at Optare bus factory in Sherburn in Elmet last Friday (6 November) and who were undertaking socially distanced picketing, being moved on by the police and warned that if they returned they would be issued with penalty notices for breaking lockdown rules.

Fundamental right

Unite’s legal case was based on the right to picket being a fundamental right protected by the Human Rights Act.

 The government finally accepted this argument and has issued guidance to all police forces which makes it clear that workers can undertake socially distanced picketing, as it is covered by the exception on the right to go to work during the lockdown.

Formal court order

Unite is now awaiting the court formally confirming the right to picket by way of a court order.

Labour movement victory

Unite assistant general secretary Howard Beckett said: This is a vital victory for the entire labour movement.

“The right to picket is fundamental and is one of the few actions that workers are legally entitled to use following a lawful ballot for strike action. Without the right to picket the very essence of the right to withdraw their labour is undermined.

“Unite’s members at Optare were holding a legal picket and abiding by strict social distancing rules. They had been told their workplace was safe for them to continue working, yet the police claimed that a picket outside the workplace contravened the lockdown rules. The decision by the police to break up that picket was wrong and the government has now conceded it was wrong.

“We have seen opportunistic employers take advantage of this crisis with “fire and rehire”, seeking to have workers pay for this crisis with their terms and conditions. For however long this crisis lasts this victory on picketing means that we retain the ability to hold bad bosses to account.”

Defend the right to picket during lockdown!

Free Our Unions opposes any attempt to use lockdown as a pretext for further restricting workers’ rights to organise and take action. Protests and pickets can be conducted safely, in appropriately distanced conditions.

We support Unite’s judicial review, undertaken in defence of the right to picket, following police obstruction of a bus factory workers’ picket on 5 November. We repost this article from the Unite website, and encourage supporters to share it.

Unite, the UK’s leading union, has filed an urgent judicial review seeking to protect the right to picket, following the introduction of the new coronavirus lockdown regulations in England.

The case is brought against the chief constable of North Yorkshire and the secretary of state for health and social care. The judicial review will be held this Friday (13 November).

Following a lawful ballot, Unite members were picketing peacefully and lawfully outside the Optare bus factory in Sherburn in Elmet on 5 November, immediately after the new lockdown regulations came into force.

The local Unite officer had carried out a full Covid-19 health and safety risk assessment and issued Covid-19 picketing guidelines. The members picketing were observing measures such as social distancing, use of face masks and hand sanitiser, while also maintaining a ‘track and trace’ log.

Despite these measures, the pickets were told by a police officer at 08.30 to stop picketing and that if he had to return that day they would be issued with penalty notices and/or fines because picketing wasn’t allowed under the new coronavirus lockdown regulations.

Unite argues that the lockdown regulations must be interpreted consistently with the internationally recognised fundamental right to picket, protected by the Human Rights Act. Unite is seeking an urgent declaration from the court this week to allow the lawful and peaceful picketing to resume.

Unite assistant general secretary Howard Beckett said: “The right to take industrial action and to picket is a fundamental one that cannot and should not be removed by government – to do so has all the hallmarks of running a horse and cart through trade union rights.

“Preventing workers who are taking lawful industrial action from picketing is behaviour more akin to a totalitarian state.

“We have taken every possible safety measure to ensure the safety of those engaged in this lawful action and to be frank they are probably safer outside on the picket line than they would be inside the workplace.

“We have workers fighting for their jobs all over the country, not just at Optare but also at Rolls Royce in Barnoldswick, where our members are opposing the transfer of their jobs to Singapore.

“We understand and support the measures brought to ensure safety during this pandemic but cannot accept that this should curtail the right to picket during an industrial dispute.

“At a time when workers are suffering from the worst excesses of employers seeking to use the pandemic to justify their behaviour it is essential that unions retain every weapon in our industrial armoury.

“This includes the courts and we are taking our argument to those courts to ensure our members have the right to fight back.”

Northern Ireland Assembly Member proposes “Trade Union Freedom Bill”

Gerry Carroll, a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, has tabled a private member’s bill proposing the abolition of all Thatcher-era anti-union and anti-strike laws.

The power to alter these laws is devolved to the Stormont Assembly. This is the first time any MLA has proposed amending them.

Although many Free Our Unions supporters are Labour Party activists, and have campaigned within the Labour Party to improve and activate its policies on this issue, we are not formally linked to any political party, and welcome moves from any left-wing and labour movement political representatives to increase trade union freedom. We hope supporters in the north of Ireland will lobby their MLAs to support Carroll’s bill.

Read more about the proposed Trade Union Freedom Bill on the website of People Before Profit here.

US trade unionists discuss strikes to stop a Trump coup

In both the US and the UK, political strikes are illegal. Nevertheless, US trade unionists are discussing the possibility of strikes to oppose attempts by far-right president Donald Trump to sabotage the upcoming election.

We republish an interview with David Van Deusen, president of the Vermont State Labour Council, the local organisation of the AFL-CIO, the US equivalent of the TUC. The interview was first published in Solidarity here.

There’s a real possibility that Donald Trump will lose this election, outright, but manipulate the process and use his powers as President to refuse to go. This is not a fringe idea – our United States Senator, Bernie Sanders, is rightly banging the drum about it too. It’s a real possibility, and no joke.

There’s various ways it could happen – there could be attempts to discount certain ballots, with so many mail-in votes this year, and ballots could be destroyed. And if for instance Trump loses Pennsylvania, they have a Republican legislature which could choose to send pro-Trump delegates to the electoral college. Trump may have support from within the Department of Homeland Security, in addition to the non-AFL-CIO police unions supporting his candidacy, and the extreme right-wing groups.

I don’t know how quickly things would unfold. The US system of elections means there are various benchmark dates. 14 December is when the electoral college votes. It may be a slow roll into crisis or it may happen rapidly.

Vermont AFL-CIO is the first state labour council to come out for a general strike if Trump attempts a coup. We’ll be taking that position to our state convention on 21 November, and asking for authorisation to call strikes if it comes to it. Our leadership is ready to do whatever it takes to defend democracy, but we want a mandate from the rank and file as we head into uncertain waters. I’m confident we’ll get one. [See their public statement here.]

We’re not going to let this country flip into dictatorship without using every weapon to stop it, and the strongest weapon we have is withholding our labour.

What kind of discussion and debate have you had in Vermont?

In addition to our elected leadership, we have a wider advisory committee made up of rank-and-file leaders from different unions. In the debate there, there hasn’t been any disagreement about the need to organise in resistance to a coup. As we get closer, if it becomes more concrete, I’m sure there will be more debate. A general strike is really outside the political experience of labour in the US, with the partial exception of some city general strikes and those were long ago.

Last year we elected a new, progressive leadership in our state AFL-CIO. Our caucus is called United and we’re clearly on the left. We have the most progressive programme of any state labour council in the US; we’re committed to fundamental changes in the labour movement. We have DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] members like me, former ISO [International Socialist Organization] members, people involved in the Movement for a People’s Party. We have a strong relationship with the Vermont Progressive Party, a social democratic organisation which is a significant force in the state.

There is no pro-Trump voice within our leadership. There is a range of views, from people who are excited to elect Biden to probably more who think he’s not likely to go anywhere like far enough.

No one is arguing for anything less than defeating Trump, but our main focus is defending democracy. Once we’ve secured that we need to fight for a labour-oriented Green New Deal-type recovery program, and that will be a fight whoever wins.

What about your membership? Are there pro-Trump voices?

We only have 10,000 members, but that’s a significant part of the workforce in Vermont. We have people all across the state.

Of course some of our members hold political views which are not as left-wing as our leadership, or not left-wing at all, but I don’t think pro-Trump views will be a major obstacle to mobilisation. I’d be surprised if he gets 30% of the vote in this state, and among union members it will be much less. Even our Republican governor is critical of Trump.

The hardest challenge will be the unfamiliarity of using strike action as a political tool. But even in 2016 when Trump was installed we had 20,000 protest in our capital Montpelier, whose population is less than 8,000. There is a large well to draw on. If there is a coup I would expect much larger numbers, and if we call a general strike larger still.

What’s the law in the US regarding political strikes?

Political strikes are illegal under federal law. But coups are illegal too! If the right seeks to disregard the constitution and have one of their own remain in power despite the will of the people, all bets are off. We will do what we have to do.

If we have to go above and beyond normal legal procedures, opposing a coup and defending democracy is more important than whether we have an “unfair labour practice” charge filed against us.

Where is the discussion at more widely, across the US?

A number of significant local union bodies have passed resolutions calling for a general strike if a coup takes place, including the local labour councils in Troy and Rochester in New York state and in Seattle. Those plus Vermont is not a general strike, but it’s a start. I think the discussion will spread, and if it becomes clear the Trump administration intends to reverse or negate the outcome, it will spread exponentially.

Obviously my state labour council only has jurisdiction in Vermont, and others have to have their own discussions, but we are engaging in as many conversations as we can. A number of local leaders from outside the state will be attending our convention on the 21st.

National AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has said the federation will do all in its power to resist a coup. We take that at face value and we look forward to coordinating with the AFL-CIO nationally too.

Are the Democrats likely to try to prevent or restrain workers’ action?

There’s two different layers to that: the national Democratic Party, and local state parties. Yesterday I contacted pro-labour leaders from the Vermont state house to discuss how we can support each other. I think there will be support, and in fact in Vermont there may also be some Republican leaders and officials who want to defend democracy – I would not count that out at all. At a national level I have less faith in the Democratic Party and how it operates. That conversation is something the national AFL-CIO will take up, but for sure in Vermont we want to coordinate with everyone who really wants to defend democracy.

If there’s a coup and you resist, do you expect clashes with right-wing activists and militias?

I don’t think that would be a major issue in Vermont. There aren’t any well-organised paramilitary groups here. But of course if we come under threat we will take appropriate steps to provide for our security and the security of labour and democratic forces generally. In other areas of the country it could be a much more serious problem. These extreme right-wing groups are in many cases well-armed, and the labour movement and left need to be prepared for self-defence. If it was in Michigan or Pennsylvania that would be one of the first issue on my agenda. Here we are considering it in a cautious way.

If Biden wins and takes office, and there’s right-wing protests or resistance, what then?

No doubt this is possible. Donald Trump is a sort of third rate Mussolini; he’s given neo-fascist groups real encouragement on various levels, and helped them build up a real movement. Even the lone wolf actions we saw in the past were dangerous, but that was one thing; now we are seeing actions by organised groups. Regardless of the outcome I would anticipate violence in certain areas of the US, even if not Vermont, and the left has to be prepared for that.

Strike action, certainly the call for a general strike, might play a different role from if there’s a coup from above, but there will certainly need to be push back and strikes are an important part of that.

Have strikes and work actions around Black Lives Matter impacted the consciousness of union members about all this?

To a certain extent yes. There have been a range of actions, the most important being the longshoremen on the West Coast, who are one of the few bastions of labour with a long tradition of political strikes. They struck over Mumia Abu-Jamal and South African apartheid. I think more broadly the Black Lives Matter movement has compelled labour to look inward and consider our relationship to the black liberation struggle, and obviously that has implications for our attitude to Trump.

In the wake of George Floyd’s killing Vermont was the first state labour council to come out with an unequivocal position that we support black self-determination. We have made a number of practical and financial contributions to black liberation groups.

The labour movement needs to discuss and build up its relationship with oppressed peoples in the US to help overcome that oppression. Racism wasn’t fixed by these protests, obviously; there is a long road ahead.

• For Vermont State Labor Council’s public statement, see here
• For more on discussions in the US labour movement, see this article on Labor Notes and this video from the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee.