Challenge Sunak’s anti-union laws on the picket lines and streets

    Thursday 05 January 2023 by

    The proposed anti-union laws would let bosses sue unions and sack workers

    protesting workers outside parliament holding RMT placards which read Key workers betrayed

    An RMT union lobby  against anti-union laws outside parliament last November (Picture: Guy Smallman)

    The Tories announced new pro-boss, anti-union laws on Thursday. The government says it will introduce a bill to parliament “in the coming weeks”. It will ensure “a basic level of service in some of our most crucial sectors when industrial action takes place”.

    The new “minimum service level” rules will definitely cover “fire, ambulance and rail services”. And “the government will consult on the adequate level of coverage for these sectors”. They will consult and then ignore the responses if they don’t like the answers, of course.

    In any case, the union leaders should refuse any talks with the government over these new anti-union laws. 

    The Department for Business says in “health services, education, nuclear decommissioning, other transport services and border security, the government expects to continue to reach voluntary agreements”. It “would only look to consult on minimum safety levels should these voluntary positions not be agreed.”

    Unions will risk having to pay damages if they fail to comply. The laws will apply across Britain, whatever the Welsh and Scottish bodies want.

    Forcing union members to continue working during walkouts is the abolition of any right to strike. It’s a crude weapon to smash resistance with the threat of massive fines and dismissals.

    In Italy, rail unions are expected to provide a minimum guaranteed level of service from 6am to 9am and 6pm to 9pm. The country’s law 83/2000 says that in “indispensable services” workers must maintain “at least 50 percent of the services normally provided”.

    The measures are so harsh that the Labour Party has rejected them. Until this week Labour would not commit to dumping such laws if it was in government. But on Thursday, delivering his first big speech of the year, Keir Starmer went beyond saying he would oppose the new moves.

    He said, “If it’s further restrictions, then we will repeal it.” But that won’t help the battles now and coming soon. And there’s no guarantee Starmer will make it to Number 10, or will stick to this pledge.

    Unions have to stop these laws before they are imposed. There is no shortage of defiant words from the top of the movement.

    RMT union general secretary Mick Lynch told Tribune magazine, “It looks like conscription, really. It means that striking will probably become ineffective in many cases, and that the worker as an individual has no right to strike. If they don’t cross pickets, they could be sacked. And it would be a lawful dismissal automatically.”

    Paul Nowak, the new general secretary of the TUC, tweeted that the union federation will “resist them all the way”. But he added that the fightback would be “in Parliament. In the courts”.

    He then added in a vague way, “I have no doubt our unions and members will continue to win ballots and exercise what is an internationally recognised, fundamental right.”

    Lynch says at one point to Tribune, “Ultimately it’s going to have to be resisted on the streets, possibly through industrial action”. But he goes on to say the campaign “needs to get the mainstream of the Labour Party onboard. They need to be saying, ‘I identify with this.’.”

    “It needs the churches, the mosques, the gurdwaras, it needs all the religious groups,” he said. “It needs civil society and all the other campaigning groups, from environmentalists to human rights organisations. It needs to be able to make this an issue for more than committed trade unionists.”

    What sort of campaign is going to be acceptable to Starmer and his acolytes? It certainly won’t be a militant refusal to accept the laws and to strike in defiance of them and against them.

    We have heard words about opposing anti-union laws from the union leaders before. But there was never the necessary action and the unions have meekly followed every obstacle thrown up by the restrictions.

    This time it has to be different. Sunak is hoping to rally his backbenchers and secure victory by breaking strikes. But if he is defeated it could stop him almost before he has begun in Number 10. The new laws are another reason to widen, escalate and unite strikes.