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!”
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!”
Andy McDonald MP, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Employment Rights and Protections, has said “Labour is committed to repealing anti-trade union laws”. This is a welcome commitment; we urge Andy and the Labour Party to go further, and state concretely what this commitment means.
Even under Jeremy Corbyn and even at the high point, policy-wise, of the 2019 manifesto, the Labour leadership’s stance on repealing the anti-union laws and promoting the right to strike remained unclear and inadequate. (See here for what we said in some detail at the time.) There is no reason to thinking that the Starmer leadership will do better without a lot more pressure.
Here are some of the issues:
• At the moment the party’s official announcements say nothing about the anti-union laws or about the right to strike. A tweet from a Shadow Cabinet member and an article on LabourList are no substitute for the whole leadership arguing for this vocally. Again, it is worth noting that even Corbyn’s leadership was reticent to talk about the anti-union laws (except the 2016 Trade Union Act) and even more reticent to talk about, let alone enthusiastically champion, the right to strike. We need clarity and we need vocal and active campaigning.
• “Repeal anti-trade union laws”? Which ones? There were nine in place before Tony Blair came to office in 1997 (for a list and review of them, see here; for a summary of their impact here). The 2016 Trade Union Act added another storey to an already very tall building.
• Under Labour’s plans, will workers be any more restricted in their rights to strike, picket, etc., than they were before 1979, when anti-strike laws were imposed by Thatcher? If so, in what ways? And why?
• Will workers still have to go through slow, carefully regulated balloting procedures? What is wrong with – among other possible methods – simply meeting together and voting to strike, as was possible before the 1980s? Why shouldn’t workers decide themselves how they want to take decisions about industrial action?
• Will 1980s restrictions on picketing, in terms of numbers and which workplaces can be picketed, remain?
• Will the ban on striking in solidarity with other workers remain? (Note that before Thatcher workers could strike in solidarity with any other workers, not just those separate from but connected to them in some degree.)
• Will the ban on striking over wider social and political issues than just industrial disputes remain?
The labour movement should push for clarity on these questions. It should demand they are answered in line with the clear policies passed at Labour Party conference and TUC Congress (see here) for repeal of all anti-union laws and their replacement with strong positive rights, including to strike and picket.
The Labour leadership is making a series of policy announcements about workers’ rights, coming out of the “Workplace Power” review overseen by Deputy Leader Angela Rayner and Shadow Secretary of State for Employment Rights Andy MacDonald.
On Twitter, in response to a question from Momentum, and in an article on LabourList, MacDonald said that “Labour is committed to repealing anti-trade union laws”.
This is welcome as far as it goes, but what exactly it means remains to be seen.
The whole Labour Party, including its leadership, should recognise, argue and campaign for the policies on this agreed by Labour Party conference. This is something we advocate both for reasons of labour movement democracy and because the policies agreed by Labour conference are clear and strong.
What are they?
Labour conference policy
• The 2015 conference voted unanimously that “Workers’ rights, including the right to strike, are essential to the labour movement’s ability to stand up for workers’ interests, and democracy”. And that a Labour government should “introduce a comprehensive package of employment rights compliant with ILO core conventions and European human rights obligations… legislate for strong rights to unionise, win recognition and collective bargaining, strike, picket and take solidarity action”.
• The 2017 conference voted unanimously that “Strong unions, freed from legal shackles and bolstered by positive legal rights, will be key to tackling poverty, insecurity and inequality, transforming society and creating an economy that works for the many, not the few. For unions to be effective, workers need an effective right to strike”. And therefore to: “Repeal the TU Act and anti-union laws introduced in the 1980s and 90s” (ie under the Thatcher and Major Tory governments).
• The 2018 conference voted overwhelmingly that “Labour will form a radical government; taxing the rich to fund better public services, expanding common ownership, abolishing anti-union laws and engaging in massive public investment”.
• The last Labour Party conference, in 2019, voted overwhelmingly twice (in two separate motions) that “in power Labour will… repeal all anti-union laws, facilitating worker-led activism over social and political issues, including climate change.” To make itself even clearer, the same conference also voted by a clear majority to reference back part of the National Policy Forum’s “Economy Business and Trade” report dealing with these issues, with the following written explanation: “This is inadequate. The 2017 Conference unanimously passed a policy repealing the anti-trade union laws implemented by the Conservative governments in the 1980s and also the 2016 Trade Union Act… This has so far not been widely reported or noticed. The policy document should reflect Labour Party policy and state clearly the importance of introducing strong legal rights to join, belong and recruit others to a union, to strike and to picket freely including in solidarity with other workers”.
TUC Congress policy
The Labour leadership should also take on board the policy passed by TUC Congress 2019 (in addition to those passed by many individual unions):
“Congress welcomes recent Labour Party conference policy (2015, 2017, 2018) to repeal all anti-union laws and replace them with strong legal rights for workers and unions, including rights to strike and picket.
“Congress believes it is crucial the next Labour government acts quickly to implement this policy.
“Congress believes workers need strong rights to 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…
“Congress welcomes Labour’s commitment to reviving collective bargaining but believes that – to quote the Institute of Employment Rights – “collective bargaining without the right to strike is collective begging”.”
Picture taken from the Justice for Refuse Workers and Cleansers Facebook page
Unite reports “heavy handed policing” of the strike by refuse workers in Bexley, South East London, over the living wage, pay progression and back pay.
Unite’s Ruth Hydon says: “We want to be very clear to the police that their heavy-handed approach to a perfectly legal picket must stop. Our members have a right to withhold their labour and picket their workplace and it is simply not acceptable for the police to intimidate them.”
The strikers and their supporters will rally on Wednesday 21 July at Bexley Civic Offices, 2 Watling Street, Bexleyheath DA6 7AT, from 6pm. See you there!
The Labour Party Women’s Conference, held online in late June, passed a motion demanding: “Repeal all anti- trade union laws and create new rights and freedoms for trade unions to help them win a better deal for working people.”
This was part of a composite motion on “women and the economy”, which can be viewed online here.
The motion adds to the growing library of strong policies passed across the labour movement, including the Labour Party, supporting the repeal of all anti-union and anti-strike laws. Rank-and-file activists must ensure our movement turns these words into action and organises strong and active campaigning against anti-union legislation.
Free Our Unions is supporting Empower the Unions, a new initiative from Earth Strike UK, a group of anti-capitalist activists in the climate movement. The campaign aims to unite environmental activists and trade unionists to resist laws that prevent unions from fighting for the climate. Check out the Facebook page here.
Videos from the online launch event are now available. We share a selection here.
Speakers included Professor Gregor Gall; Daniel Randall, RMT activist and Free Our Unions co-organiser; Dave Smith of the Blacklist Support Group; Verity Burgmann, co-author of Green Bans, Red Union; Janine Booth, RMT Disabled Members Advisory Committee secretary; and Vicki Morris, editor of the Save Vestas blog during the Vestas wind turbine factory workers’ occupation.
Panel featuring Gregor Gall, Daniel Randall, and Vicki Morris
Janine Booth on why and how we should fight anti-strike and anti-union laws
Verity Burgmann, co-author of Green Bans, Red Union, on the legacy of Australian construction workers’ “green bans” movement of the 1970s
Blacklisted former construction worker Dave Smith on what we can learn from the “green bans” approach
A legal briefing from Professor Gregor Gall
An introduction to Empower the Unions
Free Our Unions is supporting this statement, launched by activists in the Unite union. If you’re a member of Unite, please sign as an individual and propose support for the statement in your branch.
Join the Free Our Unions campaign and the Fire Brigades Union for a meeting and discussion marking the 150th anniversary of the 1871 Trade Union Act, to draw lessons from the 19th century struggle for our fight against anti-union laws and for free trade unions for today. This meeting has been rearranged from 29 June.
Speaker: Simon Hannah, Lambeth Unison branch secretary, author, and Free Our Unions activist
Chair: Riccardo La Torre, National Officer, Fire Brigades Unions
Tuesday 20 July, 7pm
Log in via Zoom here
June 2021 is the 150th anniversary of the 1871 Trade Union Act, which fully legalised unions in the UK. It was followed in 1875 by an act which legalised picketing. The result is that in the late 19th century trade unions and workers’ struggles were far less legally restricted than they are today.
In 1799 unions were banned by the Combination Acts. They were partially legalised in 1824, but this was quickly followed by harsh restrictions on trade union action – restrictions remarkably similar in content to what exists now.
The 1871 and 1875 victories were the result of half a century of militant working-class struggle. They were also the result of the radical political movements which erupted in the late 1860s and 1870s.
What lessons can we learn from these events for the fight to free our unions from anti-union laws and state and employer interference today?
Log in via Zoom here.
Facebook event here.
Free and active unions have a vital part to play in the just transition to a zero-carbon future. The anti-union and anti-strike legislation designed to suppress union activity is a direct obstacle to a greener world.
Earth Strike UK: Empower the Unions is a new initiative by Earth Strike UK, supported by Free Our Unions. Empower the Unions aims to unite environmental activists and trade unionists to resist legislation that restricts our rights to organise and strike and empower unions to take the action necessary to safeguard our future.
Join us at 2pm on Sunday 27 June for an online rally to kick off this new campaign!
The rally will feature contributions from activists including:
• Janine Booth (Secretary, RMT Disabled Members’ Advisory Committee)
• Dave Smith (Blacklist Support Group)
• Verity Burgmann (Co-author of Green Bans, Red Union: The Saving of a City)
• Gregor Gall (Industrial relations professor and labour movement activist)
• Vicki Morris (Socialist activist involved in the Vestas wind turbine workers’ campaign in 2009, editor of the Save Vestas blog)
The speeches from our May public meeting are now online. The meeting was co-organised with RMT Disabled Members’ Advisory Committee and Neurodivergent Labour, and featured contributions from:
Mario Kyriacou, Tower Hamlets Unison
Elane Heffernan, Disabled Members’ Rep, UCU NEC
Janine Booth, Secretary, RMT Disabled Members’ Advisory Committee
David King, Chair, RMT Disabled Members’ Advisory Committee
The 2021 congress of the GMB, Britain’s third largest trade union, took place on 6-8 June. The congress passed the following resolution on the issue of anti-union legislation.
• The Tories’ 2019 election manifesto included further attacks on the right to strike,
i.e. the requirement for ‘Minimum Service Agreements’ in any railway strike, in the
absence of which the strike would be deemed illegal.
• In the run-up to the 2019 election a planned CWU strike for which the union had an
overwhelming mandate from its members was ruled unlawful, were it to go ahead, on
the basis of an interpretation of anti-union laws dating from the 1980s by the courts.
• Reports that, following Brexit, the Tories are planning major attacks on workers’
rights in the workplace, including the Working Time Directive.
• The widespread use of ‘fire and rehire’ by employers during the Covid-19
pandemic, and the more general attack on workers’ terms and conditions in the
course of the pandemic.
• Free trade unions, unshackled by restrictions imposed by the state, and not subject
to restrictions on the right to strike, are essential if the labour movement is to be an
effective campaigning force
• Welcomes and supports Labour Party policy in favour of scrapping all Tory anti-
• Agrees to campaign against the introduction of new anti-union laws and to
campaign for the scrapping of all anti-union laws.
• Agrees that such campaigning should involve, but not be limited to:
– Production of GMB campaigning material explaining the case for opposing new
anti-union laws and for scrapping existing anti-union laws.
– Production of GMB campaigning material specifically for use by GMB delegates to
Constituency Labour Parties, for use in their CLPs.
– Coverage of the campaign in regular GMB publications.
– Lobbying of MPs to demand that they oppose the introduction of new anti-union
– Lobbying of MPs to demand that they support strikes in their constituencies by
turning up to picket lines, in recognition of the democratic right to strike.
– Approaching other unions which have the same or similar policies in order to
pursue joint campaigning.
• Agrees also to campaign for a comprehensive charter of workers’ rights to be put
on the statute book, including the right to strike without legal impediment, and
covering both individual and collective rights
This Congress calls on the GMB to support any Trade Union affected by the Anti-Trade Union Laws.