By Charlie Kimber
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TUC union federation calls for day of action to defend right to strike

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Activists should push union leaders to make Wednesday 1 February a day of strikes
Issue 2837
RCN nurses union members hold placards on a picket line, the person in the centre has a placard that reads enough is enough, illustrating an article on the TUC day of action on 1 February

RCN union members outside St Thomas’ hospital in central London during the nurses’ strike last December (Picture: Guy Smallman)

The TUC union federation has called a day of action against anti-union laws on Wednesday 1 February. But union leaders have not called united strikes to make it really count.

The Tories will be relieved that there is no coordination and no concrete backing for the NHS strikes. It will assist their campaign to keep strikes isolated and fragmented.

There are leaks from inside the meeting that some of the health union leaders were strongest against a day of strikes. They feared that a “general strike” would lose the “special case” for the NHS and the “pure reputation” of health workers.

Such attitudes are utterly backward. They divide strikers and undermine the demand that workers need better pay, as well as defending the NHS.

But the battle is not over. Every worker now has to fight to win walkouts. The combination of laws that effectively take away the right to strike from many workers, with real terms pay cuts for tens of millions, demand militant action.

Instead, the TUC has in effect separated the issue of new legislation from the battle over wages. Otherwise, it would have ensured that there would be mass strikes that day.

Paul Nowak, the TUC’s general secretary, said, “On 1 February we will hold events across the country against this spiteful new bill. We will call on the general public to show support for workers taking action to defend their pay and conditions, to defend our public services and to protect the fundamental right to strike.”

The decision not to call strikes is a betrayal of the possibility of mass united action on the day. Now workers everywhere need to agitate and organise for united strikes despite their leaders’ failures.

There is no reason why, at a minimum, those with live national disputes cannot strike on the day. This includes 125,000 Royal Mail and Post Office workers, 50,000 rail workers, 100,000 civil service workers. 30,000 ambulance workers, 100,000 nurses, 70,000 university workers and 60,000 Scottish teachers. 

There are live strike ballots covering these groups—more than half a million workers. All that has to happen is to give the 14 days’ notice of action in the next few days. The only thing preventing these being out on 1 February—and more—is the hesitations and cowardice of union leaders. 

And in the next few days, results will be announced of strike ballots covering more than 600,000 teachers. They too could be on strike.

It’s time to organise for 1 February: 

  • Call a meeting in your workplace to pressure your union leaders to strike on 1 February. And discuss what action you can take even if there isn’t an official call.  The aim should be to win strikes, whether there has been a ballot or not.
  • Discuss with workers more widely to act together to win action and push union leaders.
  • Push for rallies and marches on the day. And, if union leaders don’t call them speedily, then organise them from the base of the unions, through strike solidarity groups, trade councils, strikers’ social media groups and more.

The union leaders’ moves underline that there can be no reliance on those at the top. It’s right and important to push for united action. But the central issue is escalation of the individual strikes, if possible towards all-out action.

  • Join the demonstration against the new laws called by the RMT union on Monday 16 January, 6pm, Downing Street.

What are the proposed new anti-union laws?

The new laws, revealed on Tuesday, mean a regime of fines and sackings for daring to take action against bosses and the government.

They will apply directly to health, fire and rescue, education, transport, border security, decommissioning of nuclear installations and management of radioactive waste and spent fuel.

The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill sets an outline of what services would have to be provided during strikes. The exact details are not set out in the bill.

Under the current law the union cannot be sued for damages, and workers cannot be sacked. This is provided that a union organises a strike in accordance with rules set out in the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1992. 

The bill would change that. To continue to enjoy those protections, unions and individuals would have to comply with the minimum service level (MSL) legislation.

The law would give the secretary of state the power “to make regulations providing for levels of service where there are strikes in relevant services, which are defined as ‘minimum service regulations’”.

In a briefing last week, the government said it would definitely use the new MSL powers in fire, ambulance and rail services. In the other sectors covered by the bill—health, education, nuclear decommissioning and border security—it would look to negotiate voluntary minimum service level agreements first. But this distinction does not apply in the legislation.

Unions would have to take “reasonable steps” to ensure its members comply with the work notice. If the union fails to do this, it could be sued for damages for the consequences of the strike.

Workers who go on strike, would lose their automatic protection from unfair dismissal if the work notice says they should be working. This is provided that “their employer has (before the strike day) given the employee notice of the work specified in the work notice that they are required to carry out on the strike day and a statement that they must comply with that work notice”.

These laws have to be fought against—and defied if passed. Petitions and polite rallies are not enough.  

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