'Don't back down'

Unions must resist the Tories’ new anti-strike laws – even if that means breaking the law ourselves, writes Unite general secretary Sharon Graham

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As the TUC meets to plan its response tomorrow (December 8) my message is clear: don’t back down, strikes are a vital part of how we improve pay and conditions.

The British government is about to launch one of the greatest ever attacks on trade union rights. The so-called minimum service levels regulations may sound innocuous, but let’s be clear: trade unions are the last line of defence for workers and their communities, so we say, loud and clear, that we will fight this iniquitous legislation with all the power we can muster.

Tory ministers are staggering from one desperate expediency to another, but they need to understand that we are going to take a stand. It’s what the trade unions are for – defending working people.

Of course, the so-called minimum service levels regulations, which allow employers in certain sectors to force workers to provide minimum service levels while their colleagues are on strike, will do nothing to actually stifle industrial unrest. Making trade unions police their own strikes and force members to work in disputes will do no more than prolong those disputes and compel people to take alternative action.

The legislation, which was enshrined in law via the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 and is expected to come into force by the end of this year, will create increasingly hostile environments for both employers and workers in England and Wales (the Scottish government has confirmed it will not enforce the act). It will make disputes much harder to settle, with the potential for guerrilla-type conflicts emerging across our economy. Put simply, this is industrial sabotage. And it is supported by neither side – employers nor workers.

The TUC special conference this weekend is therefore an opportunity for the trade union movement to plan its response. In September, congress was given a clear mandate for all unions to work together to make sure that all organised workers retain the right to take effective industrial action; and to ensure that no employer takes advantage of this situation, which was created by failing politicians taking desperate measures.

Now we need to do more than agree statements and express anger. For this conference to hold meaning, we will need to agree action. The time for talking is gone. And we can’t just wait for Labour.

Labour leaders say they will repeal the legislation in their first 100 days in office and I hope they will – even if Keir Starmer’s recent comments on Margaret Thatcher might make you wonder. But even if Labour does wins power next year, we still need to deal with the here and now.

We have to address what will happen when the first trade union is told to make its members cross their own picket line. We will have to be prepared for self-reliance, for practical solidarity. Because in the coming months it will be what the unions and our members do that matters, not the words of some judge or politician.

In 1921, councillors in Poplar, east London, who went to prison in order to make council funding fairer, rallied under the slogan, “It is better to break the law than to break the poor.” Unions, too, must be prepared to back their members in the face of unjust laws.

At Unite’s conference in July, we reaffirmed the rulebook change that the union is not bound to always act inside the law, for this very reason. If the government does push unions outside UK law, the union movement must act in solidarity and the government will have to own the consequences.

And we will need to box clever. In my experience, industrial action is most effective when supported by both strike funds and strategy. Away from the picket line, Unite has developed campaigns that use brains as well as brawn. Many of the sectors covered by the legislation (such as rail, the ambulance service and border security, with consultations ongoing on hospital settings, schools, universities and fire services) are now run by global corporations whose interests extend far beyond our immediate horizon. Tackling them will be key. Action in Detroit may prove more effective than action in Derby.

History has taught us, on many occasions painfully, that we need to take a stand or take pay cuts, sackings or worse. Over the last two years my union has won more than £400m for workers in better pay – and has secured fairer terms and conditions – from the settlement of industrial disputes alone. Hundreds of disputes have been fought, many far away from the public eye. And we have been winning. That is a fact.

Strikes are a vital part of how unions improve job pay and conditions when negotiations with employers fail, or more likely they refuse to pay when they can clearly afford to do so. Remember this too from trade union history: the Equal Pay Act had its origins in the 1968 strike of the Ford Dagenham sewing machinists.

Trade unions are at their most effective when fighting for better deals for workers. That’s what it says on the trade union tin. And it’s why the government is again attacking organised labour with no holds barred. This is not about the economy or protecting people. It’s about weaponising strikes and revving up the party base for a coming election.

So, this conference on Saturday presents trade unions with an opportunity to do more than whinge and wait for politicians. Let’s grasp it.

By Unite general secretary Sharon Graham