In his government’s first Queen’s Speech, Boris Johnson has announced that he plans to introduce new laws to restrict strikes.There could be little clearer indication of the class loyalties of his government than this. Despite his wildly hypocritical appeals to “anti-establishment” feeling, here his government shows its true colours, in attempting to further restrict the ability of working-class people to take action to improve our lives.
The law is designed to initially target the rail and transport industries, imposing a “minimum service requirement” which would effectively ban transport workers from taking all-out strike action. If the law is introduced and not quickly challenged, the Tories will undoubtedly propose extending it to other industries, such as the fire service, health, and education – all already designated as “essential services” requiring a double threshold under the terms of the 2016 Trade Union Act.
The entire labour movement, including the Labour Party, must respond immediately. The protest called outside Parliament by the RMT and others on 19 December must be the start of an ongoing campaign.
Unions should call meetings and protests at local and national levels, and the Labour Party and the TUC should call a national demonstration. Despite the election defeat, Labour and Momentum showed significant capacity in mobilising hundreds of people to canvas in marginal seats. That capacity must now be used to resist these attacks on our rights.
Although the immediate struggle is necessarily defensive, a counteroffensive stance is also necessary. Resisting the new law should not mean an accommodation with the status quo, where our right to strike is severely curtailed by arbitrary balloting thresholds; the prohibition on workplace ballots; bans on solidarity action and strikes over political issues; and restrictions on effective picketing. A movement of resistance to the new law must also be a movement demanding the abolition of all anti-union laws.
If the law is imposed, we also need to confront that reality that, as with any unjust law, defeating it will require that it be broken. Against the backdrop of historically low levels of strikes, expecting mass unofficial action on an short-term timescale is unrealistic. But conversations must be had in workplaces and union branches, in the first instance in the industries being targeted, about rebuilding the confidence and organisation necessary.
Free Our Unions, a campaign initiated by Lambeth Unison and now backed by the Fire Brigades Union, the RMT, and the IWGB nationally, as well as dozens of union branches, will be renewing our activity in 2020, and working with others across the labour movement to fight against anti-union laws.
Unions and Labour Parties should demand that wherever a Labour authority is a transport employer (for example, the Labour-controlled Greater London Authority, which administers Transport for London), they commit to effectively defying any new anti-strike law by setting the “minimum service requirement” to zero.
In countries where similar laws exist, they often operate in practise by unions and employers agreeing a minimum service level between them. Although the detail of how the Tories’ proposal will work has yet to be drawn up, Labour authorities should commit in advance to defying it.