The Government’s latest anti-strike laws, introduced by the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act, threaten striking frontline workers with the sack and trade unions that fail to comply with being sued into bankruptcy.
The laws have faced a barrage of criticism from civil liberties organisations, NHS employers, race equality groups, employment lawyers and, of course, the trade union movement. Mass protests have been held, and legal action is on the cards. But unions like the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport workers (RMT) and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) have been pushing for the trade union movement to go further: committing to a mass campaign of defiance to defeat anti-union laws.
Today, a motion put forward by the unions at Trade Union Congress was passed, committing the TUC to build mass opposition to the Minimum Service Levels Act, up to and including a strategy of non-compliance and non-cooperation to make the anti-strike laws unworkable, including industrial action.
RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch and FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack sit down with Tribune to discuss why this campaign is so important and why it matters for the future of the trade union movement.
Defying the Law
Mick Lynch, how will the minimum service levels laws affect your members?
It’s important to our members because many sections of our industry will be banned completely. You can’t run the infrastructure of the railway without having it run completely. In the disputes that we had with Network Rail and the train operating companies, there was a complete closedown on many occasions. That’s because it’s a system, and systems have to run. They either run or they don’t run. It’s very hard to partially close down something. And if you want to run a signalling system from here to Scotland or out to Anglia or down to Cornwall, you’re gonna have to open up the whole system. So those members in control rooms and in signalling centres will have to work even if they want to run a partial service.
The Government haven’t described what kind of service they’d want to run if the RMT takes industrial action. What constitutes a minimum service level is at the Government’s discretion. It will mean that, in effect, many of our people are completely banned from striking.
And Matt Wrack, as General Secretary of the FBU, you’ve been very vocal on this. You’ve called for a campaign of defiance. This legislation is going to have a significant impact on firefighters in particular, isn’t it?
Yes, we have similar problems to those Mick has just outlined. We’ve had a meeting with the Home Office. We don’t know what their minimum service level would be in the fire service, but they accepted in that discussion that in some cases, it would mean them telling everyone that they have to come into work. It is a fundamental attack. The debate this week is crucial to what we do next. It’s about building a campaign. We’re not there yet.
We’ve had protests, talk of legal action. Why is a campaign of defiance important to you?
We’ve got a particular concern about legal action. We are worried in terms of our own industry and where that would lead. Clearly, we should challenge the Government legally, if necessary. But we’re not convinced that would assist us and possibly anyone else. We want no backsliding from Labour. And it’s welcome that they’ll repeal the Act and the 2016 Trade Union Act within 100 days. But they will come under a lot of pressure when it comes to the election to backtrack on that. And we want to make sure that this Congress and unions prevent that from happening. And then we also have to prepare for what happens if unions come into conflict with this law. People might end up being sacked.
If the Government attempts to enforce these new laws, how are you going to manage that? You’re going to have to think in a very different way in terms of how you conduct industrial action.
I don’t think we’ve got the answers to that yet. We’re not just wanting stunts and so on at Congress. You’ve got to think carefully about what this means and how you take it on. I think the importance of the composites is that it’s saying that we don’t just go along with what the Government has done. When we look at the history of anti-union laws, we’ve complied with all of them, and it just sets us up for the next one. This will not be the end of it. There will be further attacks if we go along with it and accept this.
Mick Lynch, yesterday at a fringe event, you hinted at some unions perhaps being too passive in the midst of this legislation. Unions who would support a protest against it and a legal challenge but are unwilling to say they will defy this legislation.
I think there’ll be a temptation for some unions that are not immediately in the firing line to say, ‘Well, it’s not our problem, so we’re not getting involved.’ That will be a real temptation. And it will be a temptation for the TUC as a whole. Relying on the International Labour Organisation (ILO) is not going to make this legislation go away. We’ve been outside compliance of ILO standards for four decades.
When you go to court, it doesn’t mean the law is withdrawn. It means that governments learn how to comply with the law. Legal action can be part of the trade union’s toolbox, but unfortunately, it has always been used against us until now. We’ve had to learn how to comply with legislation. Industrial action now is completely different to the way it was in the 1980s. People used to walk out the door often. Members didn’t even have to wait for their executive committee or the national union to endorse it — they used to be able to get on with it. Things have changed a lot since then. If this law makes it so that people can’t go on strike, this movement will die. We can’t start from the basis that we’re just going to accept it.
In the 1970s, when the Government passed the Industrial Relations Act, trade unions called unofficial action and defied the law. Trade unions today are a lot more cautious about things like that. Mick, you spoke yesterday at the Institute for Employment Rights fringe about how the history of the trade union movement has always been defiance.
You celebrate defiance; you don’t celebrate giving in. You don’t go down in history for the great compromises you make. There are always compromises in disputes. But if you want to make this a turning point for whether the unions are going to be active or passive in the future, you can’t start from the position that we’re going to be passive. We have to take a stance that we are not going to comply. We don’t know what that means yet, because we don’t know what compliance is. We don’t know what non-compliance is. So we’ve got to work that out. But this Congress has got to set us off on the right foot and the right attitude.
It’s clear that trade unions are going to have to develop a coherent strategy on this. That will require a great degree of coordination and collaboration. Have you seen much of that collaboration recently?
Well, it wasn’t very coordinated. Last summer, we had the opportunity of probably a generation to take coordinated action, and many unions didn’t want to do that. The FBU didn’t take any action; they’re very lucky. They can’t be blamed for getting a good deal. But last summer, I think we missed an opportunity. And the TUC were quite relieved that some of the big players in this movement didn’t want to coordinate our action. But I think that was really unfortunate, because it sets the tone that they’re going to go their separate ways and try and navigate through this rather than confront it. And that’s not a good way to start.
If you look at the anti-strike laws in the context of new laws restricting the right to protest and boycott, it demonstrates we are going down a path of authoritarianism. And even the Labour Party now are seemingly adopting some of that rhetoric. That’s a very scary thing for the Labour movement.
It is. Our movement was built on the basis of protest and sometimes breaking laws. And that’s how laws were then changed. This is an attempt to control and regulate trade unions. You’re absolutely right; the attacks on civil liberties and the attack on the right to protest are all part of the same drive, which is about stopping people from standing up for their rights.
For workers, they want to take away our right to strike because they want to drive our wages down and drive our living standards down. It’s as crude as that. And they want workers not to be able to resist that. It will be interesting to see how it unfolds under a Labour government. First of all, we’ve got to make sure there’s no let-up in pressure to repeal the limited bits of legislation that they’ve promised. I think ourselves, and I’m sure the RMT, would want them to go much further. Our policy, the policy of the TUC, is that all anti-union laws should go. I don’t suspect we’re gonna get that from a Starmer government.
In a way, the repeal of the 2016 Trade Union Act, alongside the fiscal rules we are hearing from the Labour Party, sets the scene for potentially even more industrial action under a Labour Government. Empowered trade unions will be discussing pay deals next year and the year after for your members. Labour’s fiscal conservatism could potentially be a big source of contention.
Unfortunately, Labour’s making no spending promises. Even the question of restoring public sector workers’ pay levels, they’re refusing to make any concession on that. So that is setting up for conflict under a Labour government.
When it comes to secondary picketing and general strikes, there is no mood for defiance of the Thatcher-era laws. Trade unions say they could be sued, fined and potentially bankrupted for defying those laws. That could potentially make trade unions fearful of defying the minimum service levels legislation, too.
Absolutely. We’ve got to be very careful of what we do. We haven’t said we’re going to break the law or anything. What we’re saying is the movement as a whole needs to set an agenda to defeat this legislation by whatever means we can. We’re not in the 1970s. There were twelve million trade unionists back then. We’re about half the size that we used to be. Building union membership is a key aspect of fighting back.
Mick, in the course of your dispute, particularly the campaign around ticket office closures, you’ve managed to build a broad coalition. You talk the language of defending communities and defending essential services. Do you think you can build a similar broad coalition against the anti-strike legislation framed in terms of liberty and the attack on our rights? Perhaps that could have an appeal across the political spectrum.
I think we have to. Unions can’t just be a club of people who’ve got jobs in certain sectors, which they’re increasingly becoming. Public services are becoming a sort of archetype of where a trade unionist works. So if we’re not able to recruit private sector workers very rapidly into trade unions, we’ve got to draw people who are not in traditional areas into campaigns that we’re involved in. And you’ve got all this new legislation restricting our political freedoms. So we’ve got to join up with everyone; climate activists, anti-racists activists, people who are just campaigning in their local area about facilities and services. We’ve got to draw them into a broad campaign that says it’s only through organisation and solidarity across the lines that you’re going to achieve change in society. And trade unions should be at the forefront of that because they got the techniques, the knowledge and sometimes the money, frankly, to help with this organisation.
We can’t just turn in on ourselves and just say it’s all about terms and conditions. Because it’s about more than that. Our people are encountering problems in their own areas; they’ve got housing problems, they’ve got problems in education, they’ve got problems with the health service. So our campaigns have got to reach out to these other areas. And we’ve got to get these laws repealed, but we need a very progressive Labour government that is going to change our society.
A question for both of you. What should the Trades Union Congress be doing? What do you think they’ve lacked in the past? And what would you like to see from them?
They’ve lacked the profile, and I think Paul Nowak [the general secretary of the TUC] is changing that to be fair to him. He’s trying to get out on the front foot, but they need to start coordinating action, and they need to take a stance that is more assertive rather than just trying to be persuasive. Policy is not going to crack the egg. We need unions to be coordinating what they’re doing to confront the employers. Things like outsourcing are big issues. So if we want to get cleaners and catering workers and hospitality workers back to where they used to be in terms of earnings and terms and conditions, we’ve got to have coordinated campaigns right across the unions, and that’s what the TUC should be doing. I don’t understand why we haven’t had a national campaign on the outsourcing of cleaners. Things like that are where the TUC should be.
I think the TUC should spend more time organising workers and less time trying to get into the corridors of power. There was a debate recently about inviting the governor of the Bank of England to address the executive. I said, frankly, I think that’s a complete waste of time. I don’t think those people are friends or allies of working people, and we shouldn’t waste too much time listening to them or giving them a platform. Of far more importance is talking to cleaners and people who are not in trade unions currently about why you should join a union. Get organised and take action to defend your living standards.
On Labour’s New Deal for Working People, there are two things in particular that appear to be watered down. The first one is collective sectoral bargaining agreements; it looks like it’s only going to be in the care sector. The other one is the single status of worker with rights from day one. Particularly in your union, Mick, you’ve got a lot of rail workers, disproportionately Black and Asian, who are in bogus self-employment. There’s a real risk that they could be thrown under the bus. We know Labour are meeting lobbyists for big business as much as they are meeting trade unionists.
Some of the people in the shadow cabinet who are trying to push the New Deal for Working People, so we’ve got to get behind it. Justin Madders, who is a friend of ours — he’s not a left radical or anything like that, but he’s a straightforward Labour guy — he’s coming to a fringe meeting at lunchtime today to explain what’s on the table. People like Angela Rayner, Justin and Louise Haigh in transport, we’ve got to get behind them and say these people can’t be booted out of the shadow cabinet. The thing can’t go through a colander where you look at it and there’s nothing left. So we’ve got to make sure that as many of those promises, commitments and ideas are delivered.
But these individuals could be quite powerless. It appears Rachel Reeves will be controlling the purse strings and pushing the agenda of big business
Peter Mandelson is controlling what’s going on. That’s the problem. And you can’t see him.
If Labour gets into government and they roll back on some of these commitments, how should the trade union movement respond?
Well, we’ve got to put them under pressure.
What does that mean?
Well, it means that where we need to take action, we take it. Where we need to criticise them directly on platforms like this, we take it. And in the Labour Party, those unions that are affiliated need to put them under pressure. We need to put them under a lot of pressure in the media. Wherever we get a platform, we will be saying you’re not doing the right thing. And we’ll have to do something about it. Sectoral collective bargaining is essential to changing this country. Most people don’t realise that. But if you want to bring up the standards of cleaners, hospitality, and people in the care sector, there needs to be national bargaining in those sectors so that they are all brought back in. And we need to change the way working-class people live in the communities that they’re in as well. That’s what will save our communities. We need a proper sectoral bargaining economy.
One thing we need to do is say things as they are and not gloss them over. Yesterday, there was a debate here on child policy and school meals, and some very good speeches. But unfortunately, when this issue came up at Labour’s National Policy Forum, we attempted to push a vote on universal free school meals being included in Labour’s manifesto, and some of the unions who spoke in support today had a contradictory line in those meetings. When you’ve got the chance to shake Labour policy, we’ve got to say tell people the truth. If Labour is backtracking, we have to call it out and challenge it rather than pretending it hasn’t happened.
Mick Lynch is the general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport workers (RMT).
Matt Wrack is the General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union.
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