'The power to make change'

Unite GS Sharon Graham speaks out ahead of TUC right to strike demo

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Forty years ago, 14 civil servants working in the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) lost their jobs for being members of a trade union.

In 1984 Margaret Thatcher enforced a ban on union membership at GCHQ. She claimed that it wasn’t possible for someone to be both a trade unionist and faithful to the security of their country. It took 13 years for the ban to be reversed.

This weekend the union movement will gather in Cheltenham on the anniversary of those events, not just to pay tribute to those few who chose principle over expedience, but to stand squarely against the attacks occurring today on our fundamental liberties.

I am primarily talking about the government’s so-called Minimum Service Levels regulations which came into force in December. These are intended to deliver two outcomes. First and most importantly for the government, to create a hammer with which to weaponise industrial action for short-term vote grabbing. Second, to deliver what they hope could be a decisive blow against their own citizens’ rights to withdraw their labour, before the Conservatives limp out of office.

The plans are unworkable in practice. The regulations themselves are almost irrelevant to the government. Why? Because they are motivated by the politicisation of strikes, not the avoidance of disruption. The more chaotic the better. They see no contradiction between their preaching about democracy on the global stage and attacking the rights of their own citizens at home.

Whatever happens we will continue to find ways to win for our members. While this may be no more than a passing political weapon for many in government, for us it will be a full-time job. Rather than decapitating the union movement, this attack will only strengthen our collective resolve, build resilience, and generate capacity for action.

The union movement is ready to fight. I can say with conviction that if tested we will deliver real support. No matter which union or group of workers is targeted first by this pernicious legislation, we will collectively act in their defence. Solidarity will become more than a slogan, whether for clinicians or factory workers.  

But it’s not just the right to take industrial action which is under threat. Whether it’s The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 or the Public Order Act 2023, this government has attacked many of the fundamental pillars of any functioning democracy.

If we take away the school yard politics that has led us here, restricting people’s rights to take a stand, whether at work or elsewhere, risks leaving workers relying on trust, and having to trust in the actions of others to deliver what they need as opposed to being able to rely on their own agency. Over the last couple of years, if we had not had the right to take strike action, millions of workers would have had no recourse but to put faith in employers to give them a proper pay rise. We’ve helped our members win disputes with their employers multiple times, resulting in significant pay increases.

Last year, we secured a lump sum payment for workers at Yorkshire Ambulance Service (YAS) Trust worth up to £3,789, after they were denied the one-off lump sum payment awarded to all other NHS workers, because they were on zero-hours contracts. Industrial action also helped us secure a ten per cent pay rise for Brighton and Hove bus workers, and an 11.2 per cent pay increase for Go North East bus workers.

The same firms that profiteered across our economy would not have paid up. In many cases, we had to take action ourselves. Without that ability, our members would have been more than £430 million worse off and profitable firms nearly a half billion pounds better off.

None of this has been inevitable, whether its attacks on fundamental rights or other symbols of our decay. From presiding over our industrial decline, to rising inequality and the breakdown of our public services, political choices have led us here. Britian may not be a global hegemon anymore, but it does not mean we have to resort to culture wars and begging bowls. There are alternatives.

That is why it is such a sad indictment of our governing class that they are mired in stories of Covid corruption and tales of cash for access. Desperate for the public to look elsewhere, they dabble in culture wars and look for others to blame. But let’s not forget that Britian can be rebuilt. Not just through politicians but through a new consensus. Forget wedge issues. It’s a new deal, a social contract that we need, a vision for the future underpinned by more democracy, not less. Where our fundamental rights are sacrosanct. Where decent jobs and security are both at the top of the agenda. Where the market has limits and where outcomes matter. Where our public services work and state-led investment is the norm.

Our role in this, as trade unions, is not to be political cheerleaders but to be an independent force with the power to make change. Both through action at the place of work and by building an alternative voice within our communities. Such a voice should not be bound by the confines of electoral politics, but based on the interest of the people we represent – workers and their families. That’s how, this weekend, we will honour the 14 men and women who stood up and said no at GCHQ.

By Sharon Graham, Unite general secretary