By Charlie Kimber at the TUC special congress
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TUC special congress: Union leaders promise fightback against anti-strike laws

But rank and file workers will have to push union leaders to turn words into action
Issue 2885
Union leaders hold up red protect the right to strike signs at the TUC union federation's special congress

Union leaders at the TUC union federation’s special congress

Trade union leaders called what they dubbed a “once in a generation” conference on Saturday to confront and defeat new anti-strike laws. The conference in London heard a series of bold speeches demanding non-compliance with the law.

But the key issue will be whether the words from the TUC union federation are turned into action—and that will take rank and file organisation. “We will defy their ban on strikes, we will overturn this unjust law,” said TUC head Paul Nowak.

Matt Wrack, FBU firefighters’ union general secretary, said, “This new law is an attempt to ban strikes in many sectors of the economy. The trade union movement cannot passively accept that outcome, and it won’t.

“We cannot rely on judges and politicians to protect us. Workers must defend themselves. Crucially, unions have today agreed that they will refuse to tell their members to cross picket lines—a clear act of defiance against the act. 

“We now need to build a mass movement of resistance and solidarity to break these authoritarian new laws.”

Jo Grady, the UCU universities and colleges union leader, said, “Let me be absolutely clear. We will never comply with legislation that requires one member to cross another on a picket line. Never.” 

The conference was designed to suppress differences and avoid debate about concrete outcomes. There was just a general council—TUC leadership—statement to discuss, and no amendments permitted. This meant the whole affair was a bit flat.

The statement makes many good points. It reasserted the position from September’s TUC congress that unions “have no choice but to build mass opposition to the laws”. This would see “up to and including a strategy of non-compliance and non-cooperation to make them unworkable, including industrial action”. 

It also confirmed, “We must use all means necessary to defeat the unjust laws.” We also recommit to “100 per cent solidarity with any trade unions attacked under these laws”. 

But there are holes and get-outs in the statement. It said unions will develop “novel and effective forms of industrial action to maximise resistance”. That might be a general strike—it might be a five-minute holding of placards.

What if someone is sacked or fined? The statement says only that unions will “call an urgent demonstration in the event a work notice is deployed and a union or worker is sanctioned”. 

One clear call was for a national trade union march through Cheltenham on 27 January. It is the 40th anniversary of when Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher sacked workers over union rights at the GCHQ spy centre in the town. 

This led to the then TUC leader Len Murray angrily leaving a meeting and declaring a half-day general strike after he was treated with contempt by the Tories. This saw a million workers out, with much of the action organised unofficially.

The TUC doesn’t ask for a repeat of that. Instead, most general secretaries hope they can get to a general election and then that nice Mr Starmer will weaken or abolish the law—as Labour has promised.

But some union leaders are at least suggesting breaking the law. Unite general secretary Sharon Graham wrote before the conference, “We need to do more than agree statements and express anger. For this conference to hold meaning, we will need to agree action. The time for talking is gone. And we can’t just wait for Labour.

“At Unite’s conference in July, we reaffirmed the rulebook change that the union is not bound to always act inside the law, for this very reason. If the government does push unions outside UK law, the union movement must act in solidarity and the government will have to own the consequences.”

She quoted the Poplar councillors from 1921 whose slogan was, “It is better to break the law than to break the poor.” And the Guardian newspaper headlined her article, “Unions must resist the Tories’ new anti-strike laws —even if that means breaking the law ourselves.”

Unfortunately Graham then went on to say, “We will need to box clever. Unite has developed campaigns that use brains as well as brawn. Many of the sectors covered by the legislation are now run by global corporations. Action in Detroit may prove more effective than action in Derby.”

That’s a recipe for passivity. In the past trade union leaders have made blood-curdling speeches about defying bad laws—and then given into the. Indeed some have enjoyed the alibi anti-union laws provide not to call action.

One union general secretary, who asked to be anonymous, told Socialist Worker on Saturday, “It feels like people are up for action. It wasn’t just going through the motions. But there’s still an air of unreality. Will we really tell people, ‘This is illegal, but we want you all out’? Would I be up for that with the threat of a massive fine for the union?”

Grassroots workers have to use all the best speeches and all the strongest parts of the motion passed to prepare for action immediately when these laws are used. They have to organise now—meetings, discussions, networks at the base—to be ready to walk out whether the union leaders tell them to or not.

It was unofficial action on a mass scale that smashed the Tory anti-union laws in 1972.

Unions should not wait for bosses to use the laws. They could coordinate action to demand employers and public bodies guarantee not to issue work notices—a bosses’ instruction to meet minimum service levels. And if they refuse, unions could ballot for strikes.

RMT union leader Mick Lynch raised this on Saturday. He said that if rail companies “fail to give satisfactory guarantees the union will have to consider having industrial disputes with them.

The government is in a death spiral and the Tories are weak and bitterly divided. A serious struggle could break them. 

An insurgent fight for union rights would be a focus for everyone who hates the Tories. It would attract support from many of the activists on the streets fighting for Palestinian freedom, and all those who want to defend protest rights.

Scab manager brings rail chaos and destruction

A strike-breaking manager caused chaos on London’s rail network on Thursday this week. An intercity train collided with an overhead power cable, sparking cancellations, disruption on the Great Western Railway (GWR), Heathrow Express and Elizabeth line, and delays for hundreds of thousands of passengers.

Aslef, the train drivers’ union, said a manager who bosses had paid £500 to scab during a strike was driving the GWR train. 

Aslef said GWR used a manager to drive a train so that the company could claim it was running services despite the strike.

The union said, “He is an operations investigations manager who was paid £500 for a short shift so GWR could say ‘We have provided a service to passengers today.’

“Overhead electric wires were badly damaged and the line was closed.”

An Aslef spokesperson said, “The problem is that many of these managers haven’t driven a train for a long time and their competence is not what it should be.

“We saw the result on Thursday. But, I suppose, as an operations investigations manager he is uniquely qualified to investigate his own actions and what went wrong.”

A GWR spokesperson said the driver was fully qualified with “competence up to date.”

Stranded passengers on social media described people on their trains “getting agitated” and “kicking doors”.

Video footage showed people on stranded trains huddled in darkness as young children wailed. Eventually people “self-evacuated” with passengers walking along railway tracks to safety.

Often after a crash, there’s a rush to blame workers. This time bosses put out a statement saying, “We failed as a system”.

  • See videos of the chaos and danger after the crash here and here

What are the new laws?

The Tory pro-boss laws started to come into effect the day before the delegates met. The first set of regulations imposed “minimum service levels” during strikes in the rail sector, ambulances, border control and some passport sectors.

Similar regulations will soon apply to other hospital workers, schools, colleges, higher education and fire services.

For the railways, train operators can demand enough workers to scab on a strike so that 40 percent of the normal timetable runs.

Ambulance workers must ensure “cases that are life-threatening, or where there is no reasonable clinical alternative to an ambulance response, are responded to” at a level they “would be if the strike were not taking place on that day”. That means no strikes are allowed.

Ministers at the department for education have suggested that an education minimum service level would apply to 74 percent of pupils. It means the vast majority of school workers would be prohibited from ever taking strike action. 

Among border control workers, the government demands repression and checking to be “no less effective than they would be if the strike were not taking place on that day”.

Bosses can issue work notices to identify people who are “reasonably required to work” to ensure strike-breaking happens.

The law requires unions to ensure their members who are identified with a work notice comply. And if they fail to do this, they will lose legal protection from damages claims.

The government has raised the maximum damages that courts can award against a union for “unlawful” strikes. For the biggest unions, the maximum fine has risen from £250,000 to £1 million.

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