Workplace & Trade Unions

We need a general strike to stop new anti-strike laws

16 January 2023

RISHI SUNAK’S new anti-strike Bill aims to make any effective strike on the railways, in hospitals or in schools illegal, by requiring unions to negotiate ‘minimum service levels’ with their employer before every strike.

The Bill has widened the group of workers affected to include firefighters, ambulance workers and border staff in response to the current strikes. The RCN called its first strike in its 100 year history in December; now its right to strike is being curtailed. At a time of galloping inflation it would empower employers to further slash wages that have fallen over the last two decades.

Right to strike

The Bill takes away a fundamental democratic right. The employer would have the right to name individual workers, who have to break their own strike.

They could, for example, name all the shop stewards and branch officials. The current spate of victimisations of union activists is a warning that the new law would be used this way.

The minimum service level is another flexible weapon for the bosses. It could be set at 50%, 90% or even 100%. If the union fails to agree with the employer’s demands, government ministers can step in and set the bar.

Paramedics have pointed out that if they were to provide a service to prevent risk to life, they would have to all work and do overtime as the service is chronically underfunded! Similarly on the railways, there is a shortage of drivers and staff because of falling pay, so the Bill could make strikes purely tokenistic.

The Bill puts a legal obligation on union officials to force its members to work on strike days, to police effective scabbing. It also opens workers who refuse to obey a ‘work notice’ to charges of gross misconduct. If they are sacked as a result, they will not be allowed to claim unfair dismissal, as it would count as illegal strike action.

The employers could be granted injunctions to prevent strikes or sue individuals and unions for loss of revenue. Recently the maximum penalty for unlawful trade union action was raised from £25,000 to £1 million. Bankrupting our unions is clearly on the agenda.

The government says the law is necessary to provide a minimum standard of service. But across the public sector, from hospitals to libraries, services are already below the government’s own legal threshold thanks to chronic underfunding.

All out on 1 February

The new General Secretary of the TUC Paul Nowak said:

‘Trade unions will fight this every step of the way. We’re inviting every worker—public and private sector, and everyone who wants to protect British liberties—to be a part of our campaign to defend the right to strike.

‘On February the 1st will we hold events across the country against this spiteful new bill – which is unworkable and almost certainly illegal.’

We should demand the union leaders break off talks with the government on the Bill. Paul Nowak is talking about taking the government to court to stop the Bill. This relies on the same ruling class judges who consistently grant injunctions against the unions to suddenly become defenders of workers’ rights. It cannot be our main form of defence.

The Bill will only be struck down in the courts by ruling class judges if they can see that workers will not obey it and will defy their fines.

Outlawing effective industrial action is a direct political attack by our class enemy and calls for a political counterattack using our most effective weapon: a general strike to smash all the anti-union legislation.

Waiting for Keir Starmer’s Labour Party would be fatal. He bans shadow cabinet members from appearing on ordinary picket lines. His shadow health secretary attacks the RCN’s claim, saying Labour would not grant it.

The left-led unions like the RMT, CWU, NEU must take the lead in mobilising widespread action on 1 February. On the demonstrations and pickets, activists need to raise the demand for an all-out continuous strike to smash these laws and drive this anti-democratic government from office.

The unions today are in shackles—we need to break them by direct action. The left led unions must take the lead in launching mass protest days of action, demanding not just the killing of this Bill, but the repeal of all the Tories anti-union laws and the passing of a charter of trade union freedom.

If we build up the resistance, starting with mass meetings in the workplaces, joint-union strike committees, and mobilising assemblies uniting workers, young people and the unemployed in every community, then a general strike to ‘Kill the Bill’ will become a real possibility.

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