The Tories’ attempt to clamp down on working class resistance to austerity with the Trade Union Bill should dominate discussion at the TUC Congress in Brighton this week.
But union leaders are divided on how to respond.
Two debates underline this division—how to stop the law and what to do if it is passed.
Their responses so far vary. The CWU communication workers’ union’s TUC motion says we should be “reasserting trade union values”.
Whereas the FBU firefighters’ union calls on the TUC to “prepare for sustained, joint industrial action across our movement”.
Other union leaders are just looking to wring concessions from the Tories so they can adapt to working within the new legislation.
The senior civil servants’ FDA wants bosses to give workers phone and computer access for ballots as this “would considerably enhance turnout and participation”.
Tory business secretary Sajid Javid refuses to consider having electronic ballots.
While the Bill represents a massive attack, it wouldn’t make strikes impossible.
The point of union legislation is to make union leaders police strikes better—union laws are only effective because unions obey them.
Mass industrial action and unions defying the laws can make them unworkable.
Union leaders aren’t locked up and funds aren’t seized when workers walk out unofficially.
The Unite union’s motion echoes its leader Len McCluskey’s call to break the law if necessary.
It argues the TUC should lead a “militant” and “imaginative” campaign and give “maximum political, financial and industrial support to those unions that find themselves outside the law”.
Meanwhile, the Unison union has urged a fight against the removal of check off—the automatic deduction of union members’ subs from wages—“by any means necessary”.
It’s an indication that some unions are willing to defy the new laws. PCS union general secretary Mark Serwotka has said, “We need to commit ourselves to have tens of thousands picketing in solidarity when the Tories criminalise the first strike or bus in scabs.”
But the union leaders need to encourage and support workers to take “legal” or “illegal” action—not just support it after it happens.
Another argument is about Labour. Many union leaders hope to use the Jeremy Corbyn campaign to rehash their failed mantra of waiting for a Labour government.
Their strategy failed specifically on trade union rights last time round, when they pinned their hopes on Ed Miliband repealing the union laws.
The FBU rightly says that the aim “must not be calling token protests … but building a mass movement with the clear aim of defeating these attacks”.
We must use the TUC demo on 4 October as a springboard for more action and turn the lobby of parliament on 2 November into a mass protest.
And we can’t let them throw away opportunities to build the fightback.
There was no reason for Unite not to have brought London bus workers out on the day of the Tube shutdowns.
The differences among the union leaders show there’s a potential to push them into action—and build the sort of movement that will give the Tories a kicking.