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!”

Open organising meeting, Tuesday 2 November, 6:30pm

Free Our Unions will hold our next open organising meeting via Zoom on Tuesday 2 November at 6:30pm.

These meetings, which we hold roughly six-weekly, are open to all supporters of our campaign, and are the means by which we decide on and plan future meetings, activities, and initiatives. If you want to get involved with our work, please come along to a meeting and have your say.

Log in to the meeting via Zoom here.

Black History Month: Martin Luther King on workers’ solidarity action

As part of our activities marking Black History Month 2021, we republish an article from 2008, originally published by Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack in Firefighter magazine.

The article is of wider interest, but we would highlight the point Matt made about MLK’s call for other Memphis workers to take solidarity action in support of the sanitation workers’ fight, and how such action is illegal in Britain today. The right to take solidarity action is at the very heart of effective working-class struggle, and we must fight to re-establish it.

Remembering Martin Luther King

[2008] marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Martin Luther King. He was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on 4 April 1968. Recent commemorations events have been marked on television and radio across the world. We have seen the famous images from the civil rights movement of the marches for equality and voting rights and the vicious violence with which they were regularly met. We have heard again Martin Luther King’s wonderful speeches, most famously from the 1963 March on Washington. King was without a doubt one of the greatest orators of modern times and his words – calling for justice – have the power to inspire people years on.

Since Kings’s death he has been adopted as a national hero by the US establishment. In the USA a national holiday has been celebrated on his birthday since 1986. Ironically, the law was signed by Ronald Reagan, despite Reagan’s hostility to King and what he stood for. During this process, however, there has also been a drive to omit some of the key features of King’s life and work from the official version of the story.

Martin Luther King rose to national and international prominence following the famous transport boycott in Montgomery Alabama in 1955. This started after Rosa Parks’ heroic refusal to give up her seat for a white passenger. King, a local pastor, rapidly emerged as the leader and organiser of this movement. The transport issue was simply the tip of the iceberg. Across the southern states, black citizens suffered discrimination through the so-called “separate but equal” doctrine which justified and legalised segregation.

During the late 1950s and early 60s, the civil rights movement spread rapidly, campaigning for equal rights, an end to segregation in education and other facilities and for the right to vote in elections. The civil rights movement’s tactics of mass direct action achieved results throughout the south. For example, between 1964 and 1969 the percentage of black adults registered to vote in Alabama increased from 19% to 61%. Hundreds of thousands of people became actively involved and millions more supported the call for an end to segregation. Young people flooded into the movement inspired by the possibility for change.

But King also had a wider vision than simply the need for legal equality. He understood that equality under the law would not automatically end injustice. In 1965, he visited Chicago in the supposedly non-segregated north. He highlighted the conditions facing black people in the cities of the north and pointed that de facto segregation existed despite legal equality.

King also began to see a clear link between the huge economic inequality in America and the position facing African Americans. During the last years of his life he began to develop a very sharp critique of the American system as a whole. Drawing the link between legal equality and economic equality, he said:

“What does it profit a man to to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?”

He began to develop plans for a further march on Washington – a Poor People’s March. He intended this campaign to unite poor people from across the racial divide and he spoke of launching a ‘militant’ campaign to force the government to act. In this context he was increasingly seen as a threat by the political establishment. This process escalated as King increasingly denounced the Vietnam War by pointing out that the USA could spend billions of dollars fighting a war in Southeast Asia but could not guarantee freedom from hunger or a decent education to its children at home.

The last campaign that King became involved in was in support of a strike by municipal workers in Memphis. The city’s refuse workers were overwhelmingly black and working conditions were appalling. The city authorities refused recognition of the workers’ union – the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Eventually, in February 1968 a strike commenced. It was to last 65 days. Martin Luther King went to Memphis to give his support. His final speeches were a part of the campaign of support for the strikers. He encouraged mass support by the entire community for the strikers and urged mass attendance at a march in support of the strike.

“If we are going to get equality, if we are going to get adequate wages, we are going to have to struggle for them. And you know what: you may have to escalate the struggle a bit. If they keep refusing and they will not recognise the union… I tell you what you ought to do and you are together here enough to do it – in a few days you ought to get together and have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis.”

As King spoke out ever more clearly for a wider vision of justice than simply formal equal rights, the campaign against him escalated. He has been monitored and followed by the FBI for years and even more hostile press coverage added to the tension. King was also well aware of the numerous death threats which had become a regular feature of his life. On 4 April the threats were fulfilled.

The link forged between the civil rights movement and the trade union was recognised when AFSCME joined with others in preserving the Lorraine Motel and turning it into the US national civil rights museum. King died fighting for the rights of working people to organise in unions. He was a long-term supporter of unions, described them as the best possible anti-poverty programme. In his campaign against poverty he had also begun to develop a coalition which crossed the racial divisions in American society.

It is ironic that the type of solidarity action King called for in Memphis in 1968 would be unlawful in Britain today. Trade unions have been under attack in both Britain and the USA for the last 30 years. During the same period inequality has brown in both countries despite generally improved living standards. Any possible measures that can be used demonstrates that racial inequality continues to permeate society on both sides of the Atlantic. The work of Martin Luther King is far from over. Trade unions have a key role to pay, both here and in the USA, in opposing racism and fighting for justice. If we allow ourselves to be divided we are all made weak. Standing together we are stronger.

Some critical notes on the “New Deal for Working People” Green Paper

A discussion article written by a supporter of Free Our Unions

At the 2021 Labour conference a “New Deal for Working People” Green Paper was published by shadow secretary of state for employment rights Andy McDonald – who then resigned over the leadership’s opposition to a £15ph minimum wage and living-wage-level sick pay. The Green Paper is as good as anything the party put forward under Jeremy Corbyn.

After much delay the party has now published the document online; for a while you could only find a scanned version on the websites of Momentum Internationalists and Free Our Unions. But it is hidden away, and has been published without fanfare or even, it seems, announcement. The left in the party, as well as affiliated unions, should seek to remedy that by loudly promoting the document and circulating it widely.

As well as many strengths, the document has some weaknesses.

The minimum wage

On the minimum wage it says: “Labour is demanding that the minimum wage is immediately raised to at least £10 per hour for all workers and will continue to evaluate what a real living wage should be… Labour will continue to assess how to deliver its commitment to raising the National Living Wage to ensure that it is adequate and addresses the rise in the cost of living and inflation since 2019… The role of the Low Pay Commission will be reformed so that the wage floor policy continues to be evidenced-based but is active as it can be in driving up wages.”

Labour first proposed a £10 minimum wage in 2017. The minimum wage is due to increase to £9.42 next year. The demand passed overwhelmingly by Labour conference was “£15ph statutory minimum wage”.

Sick pay

On sick pay the Green Paper says: “Labour will raise Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) and make it available [to] all workers, including the self-employed and those on low wages currently cut out by the lower earnings limit for eligibility.”

The conference demanded “Increasing statutory sick pay to a living wage, to be paid from day one of absence; and for the lower earnings limit that means low paid workers are not entitled to SSP to be abolished.”

There is no reason why the Labour leadership should not accept these demands on the minimum wage and sick pay as developing the Green Paper proposals further – except that it does not want to.

Employment tribunals and reinstatement

The Green Paper includes a range of measures to reform the operation of employment tribunals in the interests of workers and unions. However it does not include the crucial demand that tribunals should have the right to force employers to reinstate workers found to have been sacked unfairly. This obviously has major implications for those who take part in disputes and industrial action, as well as for a wide range of other issues including various forms of discrimination.

The anti-union laws and the right to strike

From the point of view of Free Our Unions, the Green Paper’s greatest ambiguities and weaknesses concern the crucial issue of the right to strike – and repealing the anti-union laws which severely constrain that right. As far as we know Andy McDonald has not expressed a position on this, unlike on the minimum wage and sick pay where he has made his support for conference’s demands very clear.

The Green Paper says: “Unions have been subjected to increasingly restrictive rules, most recently in the Trade Union Act 2016, which included arbitrary thresholds in industrial action ballots; complicated balloting and notice rules designed to make industrial action and union organising more difficult; and new restrictions on pickets.

“Even before the Trade Union Act came into force, the UK already had one of the most regulated systems of industrial action in the world, with unions having to comply with complex and often unnecessary legal requirements.

“These restrictions mean workers are denied their fair share of the wealth they create… The principle of solidarity[,] of workers being able to support each other is an important democratic freedom, and is vital to a healthy economy and society.

“The law regulating trade union activity has also not kept pace with changes in new technology and ways of working, such as the increased use of electronic communication, or the rise of the gig economy.”

In terms of reforms to address this situation:

“Labour will update trade union legislation so it is fit for a modern economy… Labour is committed to repeal anti-trade union legislation which removes workers’ rights, including the Trade Union Act 2016, in order to remove unnecessary restrictions on trade union activity…

“The law governing trade union statutory ballots is antiquated and fails to recognise the huge steps trade unions have made to engage and communicate with members. The current system of only allowing statutory trade union ballots via the post is costly for trade unions and their member[s] and significantly impacts turnout.

“Labour will allow trade union to use secure electronic and workplace ballots…

“Labour will examine how the requirement to give notice of industrial action should be simplified and ensure it reflects the dynamic nature of disputes.”

(There is also a supplementary document specifically on the question of restrictions on industrial action, but it not been published yet.)

That is good as far as it goes, but it does not go very far. It clearly suggests that many of the restrictions on the right to strike introduced after 1979 would remain under a Labour government.

Why should workers have to go through any state-mandated and regulated balloting procedure for strikes – rather than decide when to strike at whatever time and by whatever process they see fit?

What about the ban on solidarity action (which the Green Paper nods to, but does not commit to repealing) and on strikes for broader social and political demands (which it says nothing about)? What about restrictions on picketing, both in terms of numbers and picketing being limited to one’s own employer?

Labour conference 2021 voted twice for “repeal of all anti-trade union laws”, reaffirming policy passed in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

In line with this policy, we need to demand the repeal of all the anti-union/anti-strike laws introduced under the Thatcher and Major Tory governments. It must be at least as easy to take action, strike, picket, etc as it was in 1979. And in fact the rights gained by repealing the anti-union laws need to be bolstered by the introduction of positive legal workers’ rights, including strong rights to strike and picket.

In the words of the policy proposed by the Fire Brigades Union and passed by TUC Congress 2019: “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.”

We should get the Green Paper out into the world, demand the Labour leadership commits to it – but also seek commitment to strengthening it in line with Labour conference policy.

• Read the Green Paper here.

• For the motion on workers’ rights passed by the 2021 Labour conference, which includes the demands on the minimum wage, sick pay and repealing all anti-union laws, see here, p24. For the Green New Deal motion, which also includes the anti-union laws demand, see here.

A workers’ guide to climate strikes and the law

We republish below a guide to striking for the climate and the law, written by the socialist and trade union activist Ian Allinson. Thanks to Ian for giving us his permission to republish it. This version was updated in June 2021. A live link for the document can be found here.


What climate issues can be the basis of lawful industrial action?

The framework of the law covering industrial action is in the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, usually known as TULR(C)A 1992, which was amended by subsequent legislation including the Trade Union Act 2016.

For a trade union to organise lawful industrial action it must be ‘in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute’ between workers and their own employer.

Section 244 requires any action to relate wholly or mainly to one or more of:

  1. terms and conditions of employment, or the physical conditions in which any workers are required to work;
  2. engagement or non-engagement, or termination or suspension of employment or the duties of employment, of one or more workers;
  3. allocation of work or the duties of employment between workers or groups of workers;
  4. matters of discipline;
  5. a worker’s membership or non-membership of a trade union;
  6. facilities for officials of trade unions; and
  7. machinery for negotiation or consultation, and other procedures, relating to any of the above matters, including the recognition by employers or employers’ associations of the right of a trade union to represent workers in such negotiation or consultation or in the carrying out of such procedures.

The legislation is a huge infringement of workers’ rights. Workers themselves, not unelected judges, should decide whether workers will work or not, based on all the circumstances at the time.

Workers in each workplace need to discuss what climate issues are important to them that might fit within this framework, and their reps will need to discuss the set of issues with the relevant union staff (e.g. legal department) to convince them that the union can ballot over them.

Examples might include:

  • air quality (see here)
  • being allocated work nearer home
  • better insulated buildings
  • bike shelters
  • carbon literacy training for staff
  • commitments to retraining, job security and just transition
  • free public transport passes, electric vehicle charging points, or shuttle bus to nearest station
  • free zero-carbon canteen
  • greener vehicles
  • hiring staff to work on decarbonisation
  • less travel for work. Facilities and training for online alternatives
  • on-site childcare or collection of children to reduce journeys
  • paid time for union reps to deal with environmental issues
  • policy on leaving work without loss of pay if temperatures are too high
  • shorter working week and/or working fewer days per week, flexible hours to reduce peak-time travel
  • support (e.g. paid time off, rehousing) for workers made homeless or unable to work by climate events (e.g. fires, floods, epidemics)

Striking lawfully in Britain is difficult, with undemocratic turnout thresholds and slow archaic processes.

Verify membership recordsNotice of ballotBallot periodAnnounce result,
notice of action
Start action
Often weeks1 weekTypically 2 weeks+2 weeks

People who want to see effective action over climate change should also support repeal of all the anti-union legislation and a clear right to strike.

Can workers refuse to work under safety legislation?

Section 7 of the Health and Safety At Work Act 1974 (HSAWA 1974): places a duty on every employee while at work:

  1. to take reasonable care for the health and safety of himself and of other persons who may be affected by his acts or omissions at work; and

Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 (known as ERA 1996) protects the employee (with no qualifying service period) from any ‘detriment’:

  1. in circumstances of danger which the employee reasonably believed to be serious and imminent and which he could not reasonably have been expected to avert, he left (or proposed to leave) or (while the danger persisted) refused to return to his place of work or any dangerous part of his place of work, or
  2. in circumstances of danger which the employee reasonably believed to be serious and imminent, he took (or proposed to take) appropriate steps to protect himself or other persons from the danger.

The Labour Research Department explain “As long as the employee forms a genuine view of a risk that they reasonably regard as serious and imminent, the fact that the employer disagrees with the seriousness of the risk or the appropriateness of the steps taken is irrelevant.”

For example, RMT members at Manchester’s Victoria station recently withdrew to a place of safety after abuse from passengers angry about the failing private railway service. Leaving a work area if there are unexplained smells of smoke or chemical fumes is another example.

Raising awareness of these rights and duties can help workers respond to incidents but they are less useful for pre-planned worker action over longer-term risks.

If there was a protest by members of the community at a workplace entrance, workers might feel that it would be dangerous to try to enter the workplace. Drivers certainly shouldn’t drive their vehicles into a crowd, even slowly.

Unofficial or unlawful strikes

Strikes which don’t jump through all the legal loopholes are not illegal (banned by law), they are unlawful (not authorised by law). If you take part in an unlawful strike you have no legal remedy should your employer dismiss you. This was the case for lawful strikers too until relatively recently. What stopped most unlawful action wasn’t the threat to workers themselves but the threat of injunctions (and unlimited fines and sequestration of assets) against unions unless the unions did all they could to stop workers taking action (‘repudiation’). While some unions have policy backing action outside the legislation, this has not been implemented, making unlawful strikes unofficial (not authorised by the union). The law relies on pressuring unions to police their own members.

Unofficial and unlawful strikes still happen and have recently been most common in Royal Mail, transport and engineering construction. The main protection for unofficial strikers is solidarity – large numbers sticking together and refusing to return to work unless everyone does.

In the case of climate strikes workers may have additional protection. Many employers want to ‘greenwash’ their brand and would not want to risk publicity from being seen to victimise workers supporting global climate strikes.

For 20 Sept 2019 workers in some workplaces campaigned in advance for commitments from their employers that there would be no sanctions (other than loss of pay) for workers joining the climate strike. The process of demanding this commitment and campaigning for it raised the profile of the climate strike and support for it, built a team of climate activists around the workplace, and exposed corporate greenwash.

Even when unions won’t make climate strikes official, getting union backing for days of action or solidarity with school strikers helps legitimise going further where we can. There’s a model motion you can adapt for workplaces and union bodies here.

Public (Zoom) meeting for Black History Month, Tuesday 19 October, 6:30pm: The legacy of the Grunwick strike

Tuesday 19 October, 6:30pm
Log in via Zoom here

To mark Black History Month, and the 45th anniversary of the strike, Free Our Unions is hosting a public meeting on the legacy of the Grunwick strike.

The strike saw a workforce mostly made up of Asian women migrant workers take on a viciously anti-union employer, as well confronting the bureaucratic conservatism of much of the labour movement. There were significant rank-and-file mobilisations in solidarity with the strike from other groups of workers.

The legacy of the strike poses many questions about the intersections between race, gender, and class, and how we build solidarity action today in a context when it is outlawed.

SPEAKERS:

Professor Sundari Anitha, who has written and spoken extensively on the Grunwick strike and the wider issues of migrant, particularly South Asian, workers’ struggles

Pete Firmin, Chair of Brent TUC, who was actively involved in building solidarity with the strike.

Chaired by Sacha Ismail, Free Our Unions

Log in via Zoom here, or using the following details:
Meeting ID: 840 8181 9821
Passcode: 145075


Facebook event here.

Free Our Unions @ #Lab21: conference reaffirms opposition to all anti-union laws

Free Our Unions supporters have been active at the Labour Party’s ongoing annual conference, building support for motions which aim to reaffirm Labour’s opposition to all anti-union and anti-strike laws.

The Socialist Green New Deal motion the conference passed includes the following text: “Resolves to support… Repealing all anti-trade union laws so workers can freely take industrial action over wider social and political  issues, for industrial action to ensure action on climate change.”

We’re thrilled with the support we’re receiving from activists across the movement!

Read Andy McDonald’s “New Deal for Workers”

This article was originally published on the Momentum Internationalists website, here.

Shadow Secretary of State for Employment Rights Andy McDonald has resigned, citing Keir Starmer’s office telling him to oppose a £15ph minimum wage and statutory sick pay at a living-wage level.

The meeting Starmer wanted McDonald to oppose these demands at was a Labour Party conference compositing meeting. Despite this, the meeting included the demands in the workers’ rights motion going forward to conference.

The other very important demand the motion includes is repealing all the anti-trade union laws, as well as commitments to aid campaigning around this. Well done to the CLP and union delegates who fought to get these things included.

Not that long before Andy McDonald resigned, he published an official Labour Party Green Paper on “A New Deal For Working People”, including many important demands and focused on reinstating collective bargaining with unions across the economy. Download it above to read.

The Green Paper is woolly on the critical issue of the right to strike but it is still very worthwhile – as good as anything the party came out with under Jeremy Corbyn. It has also been promoted by Angela Rayner during Labour conference.

Is Keir Starmer now going to attack these policies too?

Solidarity strikes means McDonalds workers in Denmark won £16/hour

This article, by the US journalist Matt Bruenig, was first published on 20 September on mattbruenig.com. We republish it here as it tells an important story: how solidarity strikes led to a group of low-paid workers winning significant wage increases. Strikes of this type are entirely illegal in the UK. Our campaign exists to resist, and fight for the abolition of, those restrictions.


Every few months, a prominent person or publication points out that McDonalds workers in Denmark receive $22 per hour, 6 weeks of vacation, and sick pay. This compensation comes on top of the general slate of social benefits in Denmark, which includes child allowances, health care, child care, paid leave, retirement, and education through college, among other things.

In these discussions, relatively little is said about how this all came to be. This is sad because it’s a good story and because the story provides a good window into why Nordic labor markets are the way they are.

McDonalds opened its first store in Denmark in 1981. At that point, it was operating in over 20 countries and had successfully avoided unions in all but one, Sweden.

When McDonalds arrived in Denmark, the labor market was governed by a set of sectoral labor agreements that established the wages and conditions for all the workers in a given sector. Under the prevailing norms, McDonalds should have adhered to the hotel and restaurant union agreement. But they didn’t have to do so, legally speaking. The union agreement is not binding on sector employers in the same way that a contract is. You can’t sue a company for ignoring it. It is strictly “voluntary.”

McDonalds decided not to follow the union agreement and thus set up its own pay levels and work rules instead. This was a departure, not just from what Danish companies did, but even from what other similar foreign companies did. For example, Burger King, which is identical to McDonalds in all relevant respects, decided to follow the union agreement when it came to Denmark a few years earlier.

Naturally, this decision from McDonalds drew the attention of the Danish labor movement. According to the press reports, the struggle to get McDonalds to follow the hotel and restaurant workers agreement began in 1982, but the efforts were very slow at first. McDonalds maintained that it had a principled position against unions and negotiations and press overtures were unable to move them off that position.

In late 1988 and early 1989, the unions decided enough was enough and called sympathy strikes in adjacent industries in order to cripple McDonalds operations. Sixteen different sector unions participated in the sympathy strikes.

Dockworkers refused to unload containers that had McDonalds equipment in them. Printers refused to supply printed materials to the stores, such as menus and cups. Construction workers refused to build McDonalds stores and even stopped construction on a store that was already in progress but not yet complete. The typographers union refused to place McDonalds advertisements in publications, which eliminated the company’s print advertisement presence. Truckers refused to deliver food and beer to McDonalds. Food and beverage workers that worked at facilities that prepared food for the stores refused to work on McDonalds products.

In addition to wreaking havoc on McDonalds supply chains, the unions engaged in picketing and leaflet campaigns in front of McDonalds locations, urging consumers to boycott the company.

Once the sympathy strikes got going, McDonalds folded pretty quickly and decided to start following the hotel and restaurant agreement in 1989.

This is why McDonalds workers in Denmark are paid $22 per hour.

I bring this up because people say a lot of things about the economies of the Nordic countries and why they are so much more equal than ours. In this discussion, certainly the presence of unions and sector bargaining comes up, but rarely do you get a discussion of just how radically powerful and organized the Nordic unions are and have been. If you didn’t know better, you’d think the Nordic labor market is the way it is because all of the employers and workers came together and agreed that their system is better for everyone. And while it’s true of course that, on a day-to-day basis, labor relations in the countries are peaceful, lurking behind that peace is often a credible threat that the unions will crush an employer that steps out of line, not just by striking at one site or at one company, but by striking every single thing that the company touches.

We saw this most recently in Finland in 2019 when the state-owned postal service decided to cut the pay of 700 package handlers by moving them to a different sector agreement than the one they were currently being paid under. The unions responded by striking airlines, ferries, busestrains, and ports. In the aftermath of these strikes, the pay cuts were reversed and the prime minister of the country resigned.

When I bring this up, people sometimes respond by saying that these kinds of strikes are illegal in the US. This is a true and worthwhile bit of information, but insofar as it is meant to imply that the different legal environment is what accounts for the labor radicalism, this obviously has things backwards. The laws aren’t driving the labor radicalism, but rather the labor radicalism is driving the laws.

We can see this clearly in another recent example, this time from Finland in 2018. There, the conservative government was preparing to pass a law that would make it easier for employers with 20 or fewer employees to fire workers. The stated purpose of this was to stimulate hiring by making it easier to fire and thus less risky to hire — the usual stuff.

The Finnish labor movement did not like this idea and called a massive political strike that sidelined workers in a bunch of different sectors. In response to the strike wave, the government changed the bill so it only applied to employers with 10 or fewer employees. The strikes continued and they changed the bill again, this time so it just stated generally that courts should consider an employer’s size when adjudicating wrongful dismissal cases. This was acceptable to the unions since, according to them at least, Finnish courts already do this and so the bill was basically moot. So they stopped striking.

One can only imagine what would happen if the Finnish government tried to ban sympathy strikes in the same way the US government has here.

If we are ever going to get to Nordic levels of equality, it is really hard to imagine doing it without building a similarly powerful labor movement. You can certainly get some of the way there, such as by copying certain welfare programs, but without the unions, you’ll always be missing a key piece. And while legal and policy reforms can help build the labor movement some, the power of organized labor is not ultimately rooted in the state, but rather in the ability to halt production and wreak havoc even when the state is aligned against it.

McDonalds doesn’t pay Danes high wages because of a statutory wage floor or even because the state stepped in to enforce a collective bargaining agreement. They pay high wages because back in the 1980s, Danish unions flipped a switch and turned the whole business off, and McDonalds doesn’t want to find out whether they would do it again.

This is where we need to get to.

Matt Wrack: “We demand the unshackling of our unions”

We reproduce below the speech given by Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), at the recent TUC Congress in support of the composite on defending the right to protest. The composite was passed, reaffirming TUC policy to demand the abolition of all legal restrictions on the right to organise and strike.


Thank you, President.

President and Congress, it’s a great privilege to follow Taj [Salam, of Unite] in this important debate on this important composite, about an important attack on our civil liberties and our ability to organise to defend ourselves.

This attack from this government is no accident. They know that they intend to force working people to pay the price of their crisis; they know that will prompt resistance; and they want to limit and attack our right to resist. That’s what this is all about, and we should have no hesitation in making clear that our movement needs to unite to defend the right to protest, to defend and extend trade union rights.

The right to protest is essential for democracy. The right to protest is what won many of our democratic rights: the right to vote was won by people breaking the law and taking direction action… the abolition of child labour, the right to oppose war – exposed so sharply in recent weeks with the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the exposure of a twenty-year failure of military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq – and of course the right to support ourselves in strikes… Protest is an essential part of what we do.

These attacks through the current proposed legislation are a threat to our class: they are a threat to trade unionists, they are a threat to climate activists, they are a threat to homeless people, they are a threat to black people, to black activists campaigning and those campaigning against racism, they are a threat particularly to the Gypsy Roma and Traveller community. They will of course allow the rich and powerful to go unchallenged –that’s the whole agenda here, resisting our ability to challenge those in power, our bosses and those in government.

We need to remember also, as mentioned in this composite, that our unions remained shackled. As has been said, we demand the repeal of all the anti-union laws. We need to demand the unshackling of our unions. I remind Congress of existing policy that says 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.”

Those are the demands this movement must set out in the face of the attacks we face.

Let’s remind ourselves of some of those battles. When we won freedom for the Pentonville Five. When miners took strike action in support of NHS workers in 1982. And of course the famous case of the Rolls-Royce workers at East Kilbride, who took action to prevent engines from arming the Pinochet regime in Chile.

All these are acts which would be unlawful today – but we don’t apologise for them. We don’t apologise for our history of solidarity; no, we take pride in our history of solidarity which has won such progress over the decades and throughout the history of our movement.

We also know, we know in the FBU, that we have been spied on by undercover police officers. We have been spied on for our trade union activities, but we’ve also been spied on because we take part in anti-racist and anti-fascist activities. The latest attack in the guise in the form of the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill would license the extension of those attacks on our right to protest and organise, and enable the role of undercover policing to spy on us in those undemocratic ways.

The ruling class in this society, across the world, has a long history of attacking and undermining democracy. We have had to fight every step of the way, in this movement, and those who went before us, to demand the right to vote; the right to organise in trade unions; the right to education; the right to a health service. None of these things were given to us. They were all campaigned and fought for.