Escalate the Strikes! Defy the Anti-union Laws!

Craig Lewis writes: Jeremy Hunt’s trashing of Kwarteng’s ultra-libertarian mini-budget marks the return of orthodox economic neoliberalism, with a programme of austerity designed to placate the financial markets whilst boosting corporate profits. A programme that along with the Bank of England’s interest rate rises will plunge working class communities and families into yet deeper poverty and threaten many with homelessness. George Osborne’s austerity assault on public services and benefits led to a decade of falling real pay, declining public services and a massive rise in inequality. Workers were forced to pay the cost of an economic crisis they had no part in creating. The Tories hope to reprise this strategy.

But this is not 2010. Working class people are fighting back in workplaces and communities across the country. The Tories realise this and despite Truss’s resignation and the turmoil within their own ranks, there is total consensus that workplace and community resistance must be broken if austerity is to do its job. New laws restricting the right to protest have been introduced, with more threatened. But the Tories clearly intend to focus on crushing the mass strike wave that has built since the summer. New legislation allowing bosses to employ agency workers to replace strikers is already in operation. On the day Truss resigned, new restrictions on the right to strike were introduced in parliament. These include compulsory ballots on pay offers, which are designed to prevent unions from using industrial action to put pressure on negotiations. Bosses of course are permitted to implement mass redundancy programmes with no such restrictions! New “minimum service requirements” will also be introduced. These allow employers in the public sector, particularly transport, to designate workers prohibited from striking. If unions do not comply, their funds will be sequestrated, and strikers can be summarily dismissed. Effectively workers will be co-opted into undermining their own strikes.

A new generation of union leaders has been instrumental in building the recent strike wave and inspiring rejuvenated workplace organisation. They must now give a lead in opposing the new laws. At the TUC Congress last week there were calls from leaders like Mark Serwotka of PCS, Unite’s Sharon Graham and RMT’s Mick Lynch for unions to co-ordinate strikes across the union movement. A motion was passed urging the TUC to establish a group to co-ordinate strikes across unions. Many delegates to Congress urged more unions to ballot and called for more, and escalating strikes. On the eve of Congress Mick Lynch hinted at defiance of any further attacks on the right to strike: “RMT and other unions will not sit idly by or meekly accept any further obstacles on their members exercising the basic human right to withdraw their labour.”

Such defiant rhetoric is welcome. Yet there is always a danger, in the current political turmoil, that even good left-wing activists and leaders get distracted by the prospect of a Labour Government. In his Congress speech, Starmer pledged not just to be “pro-business”, but to actively forge a partnership “with businesses to drive Britain forward”. He refused to support the strikes, he has not reversed policy on banning Shadow Cabinet members from picket lines and the assault on the Left continues with the recent deselection of Sam Tarry. Whilst he has pledged to repeal new anti-union laws and institute a “new deal” for workers, all Thatcher’s draconian legislation would be retained by a Starmer government. Despite this, Congress still gave him a standing ovation and cheered his calls for a General Election. The danger signs could not be clearer.

Further anti-union laws will not be defeated by waiting for a Starmer government or by the TUC’s proposal to seek a judicial review. They can only be defeated by mass political strike action as happened in the early 1970s; the first time a Tory government tried to impose laws restricting trade union rights. That action was not delivered through fiery left-wing leadership alone. It was confident and combative rank and file organisations like the Communist Party-led Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions and the unofficial dockers networks that drew other workers into mass solidarity action. This put pressure on the TUC to call a 24 hour General Strike. Faced with mounting political defiance, prime minister Edward Heath contrived to release the imprisoned “Pentonville Five” dock shop stewards, and his Industrial Relations Act effectively collapsed.

Grassroots rank and file organisation enables workers to directly control strikes and act independently if necessary. It provides a mechanism to exert pressure on leaderships and it helps overcome sectional economic interests that militate against building the mass political strikes necessary to defy the law. The weakness of the current strike wave is that autonomous and confident grassroots workplace organisation has still not recovered from four decades of trade union decline. Rebuilding workplace organisation is now an essential task for all socialists and activists in the trade union movement. This means making a dedicated effort to engage members in workplace issues, ballot campaigns, solidarity activity and in building links with wider community campaigns and social movements. Such activity is the bedrock on which confident rank and file organisation can be rebuilt. Linking workplace organising with building for the People’s Assembly demonstration on November 5th should be a top priority in the coming weeks.

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