Rishi Sunak

Lindsey German on the Tory attack on the right to strike

The most restrictive trade union laws in Europe are about to become much, much worse if the Tories get their way – and will outlaw the right to strike for many. The proposed new laws shackling unions will contain minimum service guarantees in various industries including rail, but also education and health. It seems like those who refuse to work in these situations will be open to the threat of dismissal and their union to the threat of being sued. We should be clear what this means: the right to withdraw one’s labour is fundamental and denies the employer the commodity which ensures profit. To prohibit the right to strike means that workers have no freedom and is akin to feudalism or even slavery. Even worse, it is clear from a document leaked to the Observer, this proposal is the least draconian of those considered by Rishi Sunak’s government, which also looked at banning certain groups of workers from joining unions altogether.

This is a very serious attack which the whole movement must oppose. But it is also a sign of Tory weakness and inability to comprehend the scale of the anger and determination behind the present wave of strikes. Every week we have news of fresh strike ballots, or another set of strikes by growing numbers of workers. The strikes by nurses, ambulance drivers and paramedics, rail workers, university lecturers and civil servants, are now likely to be joined by teachers and junior doctors. There is talk of a major coordinated strike across the unions in February.

None of this was supposed to be happening. According to Tory lore, Margaret Thatcher slew the union dragon back in the 1980s. Unions have been much weakened numerically and in terms of strike days taken since then, but a mixture of rampant inflation, cuts in real wages, the enhanced role of key workers during Covid lockdowns, and across the board worsening of conditions at work, have led to widespread support for strikes both by those directly involved, and by the public more generally. While most strikers will cite pay as a key issue, most also talk about these worsening conditions and heavier workloads which are putting intolerable strains on those carrying out the work but also those in receipt of many of the services they provide. So millions of working-class people identify with the reasons why the strikes are happening.

The unions are finding their strength again and the Tories don’t know what to do about it. So far, they have refused to negotiate in any serious manner and have insisted that there is no extra money for public sector pay. They try to blame the dysfunctionality and chaos which is part of everyday life in Britain on striking rail workers or nurses, but this has very limited impact. The new legal restrictions are one prong of their response, which is more repression. The other is the planned meetings with unions this week, where they are trying to push towards the upcoming 2023-24 pay round, rather than deal with the existing disputes. Even here, however, Sunak has had to make concessions over this year’s nurses’ pay deal.

This is a time to press home our advantage. We must extend the strikes, coordinating between different unions, and move beyond the one- and two-day strike patterns which have so far been well supported but have not succeeded in winning the disputes. In my own union, UCU, there is a debate this week on how we escalate our action, with some proposing indefinite strike and marking boycott from this month, others a series of one day strikes plus a summer marking boycott (which will require a reballot under existing union laws). It seems to me that whatever the difficulties – and we should not underestimate these – the former strategy represents one that can win, whereas it is much easier for management to factor in one day stoppages than much longer ones. Arguments against all out strike tend to centre on money. But every union should have a strike fund to pay those losing money. In addition, such strikes would lead (as they did with the miners in 84-5) to support groups collecting money and food in every town.

If we look at the history of the trade union movement in Britain, it is punctuated by big upsurges followed by periods of restriction and repression. The wave of strikes at the end of the First World War included two by the police – and it was after this that police were banned from joining unions and striking. The unofficial strikes of the late 1960s and early 70s were met by failed Labour and Tory attempts to regulate them legally and were followed by major industrial confrontations throughout the 70s. Thatcher took on different groups of workers and defeated them one after the other, partly through use of successive anti-union laws and the use of police and other forces of the state. But we are close to 40 years on from that and new generations are moving into struggle.

We are still marked by the legacy of those defeats however, especially in terms of the nature of strike action, and by the lack of an independently organised rank and file of the unions which can build a stronger base. If we can sustain and spread the present strikes, that can change. There is widespread social discontent, a contempt for mainstream politicians, a hatred of levels of inequality, and major concerns about the state of public services.

The Tories are themselves in deep crisis. Sunak is a weak prime minister, and his MPs see the threat of Nigel Farage’s Reform Party in the coming elections. Sunak’s five pledges demonstrated this with its vague talk of growth, halving inflation (which doesn’t mean prices go down, but still increase at a lower rate) and the nod to racism over the small boats carrying refugees. Starmer’s equally vacuous speech demonstrated how his Labour Party is committed above all to distancing itself from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and so is frightened to put forward any radical solutions to the crisis.

Building solidarity with the unions, opposing the new laws, increasing the level of militancy, will all be crucial to the left’s success in the months ahead.

This week: I will be at the People’s Assembly conference in London on Saturday. You can join me for a great day discussing how we build solidarity and campaigns, with panels on the NHS crisis and the strikes. And this Tuesday there is a London Counterfire meeting with speakers from different unions on where we go from here. I’ll also be looking out for signs the teachers’ union NEU has got through the threshold to strike and wish them good luck.

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.

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