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It will take more than words to stop the Tories’ trade union attacks

This article is over 8 years, 8 months old
The Tories’ Trade Union Bill is a massive assault on our right to organise and strike. But Raymie Kiernan argues that union leaders haven’t yet risen to the scale of the challenge
Issue 2472
The Tories want to stop strikes such as the one at the National Gallery (above)
The Tories want to stop strikes such as the one at the National Gallery (above)

A right wing hack asked TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady if bad laws should be obeyed. The question came during a press conference the day before the Trade Union Bill went before parliament. 

O’Grady’s answer didn’t inspire confidence that the TUC is going to take on the government. “My focus is on stopping this becoming law,” she said. 

On the surface it seems sensible—we want to stop the bill becoming law. But the TUC’s strategy rests on appealing to slightly more liberal Tories in the hope of defeating it in parliament. 

At TUC conference Unite union general secretary Len McCluskey argued that Tory MP David Davis “takes freedom seriously”. It’s a far cry from his rhetoric about breaking unjust laws.

It’s not good enough just to shout about how draconian the bill is (see below). Despite dozens of MPs’ speeches opposing it, the bill’s second reading passed with ease.

The gap between the scale of the Tory offensive and the required trade union response is astonishing. 

McCluskey saying “give us electronic ballots and turnout will never be a problem again” shows how weak the union leaders’ strategy really is. They are preparing to work within the new law, not defy it. 

The bill’s author, Tory business secretary Sajid Javid, knows current ballot rules stifle action. That’s why he insists, “There will be no changes to how ballots are carried out.” 


The point of anti-union laws is to pressure union leaders to police their members. If union leaders don’t want to do this they should be mobilising their members to fight the bill.

Hotel worker Amna is battling to win union rights in her workplace. She thinks not enough is being done to inform workers about the new bill. 

“Unions need to get across the simple message of what it means for us and fast, before it becomes law.” she said.

“I ask the union leaders how do we get involved—what is your fight going to look like? I want to be part of it but you need to lay out clearly what you are going to do.”

Tower Hamlets Unison branch secretary John McLoughlin spoke to Socialist Worker in a personal capacity. 

He said, “We can either accept we can’t do anything under these laws or we can find ways to resist them.”

But even if we don’t believe that lobbying MPs will work we shouldn’t stand apart from those who do. 

As John argues, “The bigger the campaign against the law the better it lays the ground for what’s necessary to defy it afterwards. The two things are connected.”

Amna wants to make the government listen. But she says that if the bill passes, “Maybe we should all strike and not got to work. Yes we might break the law but we didn’t want this law.” 

Amna is a pseudonym

‘We need to prepare to support unofficial action’

A series of trade union demonstrations have been called against the bill—starting outside the Tory Party conference in Manchester on the 4 October. 

The bigger that the march is the better a launch pad it can be.

Unite the Resistance has organised a meeting after the march to take the debate forward. 

There are also set to be two trade union lobbies of parliament on 13 October and 2 November, when the bill has its third reading.

John argues, “We should think how big a workplace delegation we can get to parliament on those days—they are also a good focus for action for workers in dispute.”

The Unite the Resistance conference on 14 November will be an important event to continue the debate.

We also need to think to the future. Bfawu union president Ian Hodson told Socialist Worker he thinks the proposal to use agency workers to break strikes will sow disunity.


He said, “The unions need a strategy to combat that. Agency staff will be threatened with losing work if they don’t cross picket lines. 

“One focus can be fighting for permanent contracts—let’s put the companies on to the back foot.”

Unite union construction activist Stewart Hume argues, “We need to prepare now in our workplaces to organise fighting funds to support workers taking unofficial action. 

“If people start getting fined for protests or whatever we need to be ready to show solidarity.”

The attack on union facility time or ending the check-off system for collecting union members’ fees can also be opposed. 

We can demand councils refuse to implement these measures. 

John said, “There will be moves to sign members up on direct debit. 

“But it’s really important that we don’t just look inwards to our own organisation. That would be a dangerous step for us.

“There’s a connection between campaigning against the anti-union laws and all the other attacks we are facing, you can’t separate the two things.”

Go to for more on resistance to the bill

Why we need to kill the bill

The Tories want to make striking more difficult. 

The bill will increase the monitoring of active trade unionists by snooping on social media. 

And it demands that strike protest plans are declared two weeks in advance.

The Tories also want to curtail both the funding and the time given for trade union activities. 

A new requirement to inform the police of picket line supervisors will effectively create a new blacklist.

In stark contrast bosses get more opportunities to stop strikes in the courts and legal protections to undermine them if they do go ahead. 

It will also be easier for bosses to sack workers. A beefed up regulator, supposedly neutral, will have new powers to investigate and fine unions on a whim. 

The Tories are also demanding greater scrutiny of how unions spend their political funds. 

This doesn’t just mean it will be harder for unions to fund the  Labour Party. 

The rules will apply to all political campaigning. And the unions are expected to fund this body.

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