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Editorial The anti-strike law threat is real – but unions are rebuilding their strength

THE first special TUC Congress since the early 1980s being summoned at all is evidence that unions understand how serious Tory threats to the right to strike are.

As National Education Union general secretary Daniel Kebede warns in this weekend’s Morning Star, if it is allowed to operate as intended it strikes at the heart of unions’ reason for existence. 

If strikes are not allowed to cause “disruption,” why strike at all? Disrupting an employer’s operation is how a strike leverages workers’ labour power in bargaining. Supposed “strikes” merely become token protests.

Worse, the law, through requiring unions to take “reasonable steps” to ensure named union members break their strikes, seeks to turn unions into scabbing enforcers and the enemies of their own militant members.

This legislation has nothing to do with protecting “minium service levels” in essential sectors. 

Unions already do this in life-and-limb services like healthcare and the fire brigade, while many services are so enfeebled by years of underfunding that nothing like a “minimum service” exists even on non-strike days. 

When seven million people are on NHS waiting lists, children are moved to temporary classrooms because their schools are falling down, and delays and cancellations are the norm on the railways every day, how can the Tories talk about providing a minimum service? Hospital reps remark grimly that providing one might make strike-day staffing better than at other times.

No, this legislation is aimed at preventing exactly what we have seen over the last 18 months — workers winning better pay and conditions through industrial action.

Ministers were forced to cough up more money across the public sector as a result of sustained strikes. It is those victories which prompted the Tories to repurpose a Bill originally designed to specifically attack railway workers, and extend it to other sectors.

This law is designed to prevent the strikes that won better pay in the NHS, or for civil servants, teachers or rail workers. And if bosses see it works in some industries it will soon be spread to others.

So the threat is severe, but unions can also approach the problem from a position of confidence. This law has only been passed because unions are winning.

The successes that provoke an extremely authoritarian government into trying to ban strikes have also strengthened union organisation in workplaces. 

Unions have shown they can beat high ballot thresholds in national ballots, thresholds specifically set to prevent strikes. This shows engagement and organisation.

Many unions have been able to sustain strikes over long periods of time. Members have become battle-hardened. And the fact that strikes have produced better pay offers will be noted in workplace after workplace, building confidence to take action again.

In the 1970s, anti-union legislation was derailed in practice by unions’ workplace strength, a national shop stewards’ network, the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions.

The movement is half the size it was then, but shop-floor presence has been boosted by the strike wave, while senior leaders like Unite’s Sharon Graham have pushed resources into building strike-ready workplaces.

Nothing succeeds like success: pay wins should be trumpeted as a recruitment tool in less organised workplaces, and the cost-of-living crisis has created widespread sympathy with strikers, setting the scene for a major organising drive.

The issue of work notices can in this context be made too toxic for employers to risk — pressure has already seen devolved governments pledge not to use these powers.

This TUC’s message — to the government, and to the Labour opposition — can be that the movement will resist as one any deployment of these laws to defeat strikes, and will see them repealed, whether Labour is elected or not.

And that the labour movement militancy of 2023 will be maintained through 2024 and beyond, to reverse four decades of retreat.

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