Earlier this week, after months of rumours and speculation, Tory transport secretary Grant Shapps finally outlined a new bill that would enforce minimum service levels in key industries during strikes.
The draconian bill would essentially remove the right to strike from millions of workers, and blunt the effectiveness of legal strike action.
Despite being drafted to specifically target transport unions, such as the RMT, who have led the way in Britain’s strike wave, this legislation represents a threat to the entire labour movement.
It is no coincidence that the Tories are proposing this latest bill amidst a resurgence of industrial militancy. With these new laws, this belligerent government is throwing down the gauntlet to the trade unions.
Union leaders must pick it up and respond to this challenge by launching a mass movement – one “rivalling the general strike of 1926, the Suffragettes, and Chartism”, as Mick Lynch correctly proposed when this plan was first revealed.
The TUC has put forward 1 February as a national day of action against this Tory bill, involving “events across the country”. Paul Nowak, the new TUC general secretary, has also referred to the new legislation as “undemocratic, unworkable, and almost certainly illegal”.
Nowak has committed the TUC to resisting the bill in Parliament and in the courts. But the whole history of the labour movement shows that the legal system is no friend of the working class.
Instead, the trade union leaders must prepare to mobilise members en masse to defy these Tory laws. As Unite general secretary Sharon Graham has previously stated: “If [the Tories] force our legitimate activities outside of the law, then don’t expect us to play by the rules.”
Anti-union laws have shackled the organised working class for years – not because of the strength of the state, but because of the timidity of the union leaders.
The response from the trade unions must therefore be more than a few town hall meetings and court cases. What is needed is a mass mobilisation of the whole labour movement.
Already, the Enough is Enough campaign has responded with a petition titled ‘defend the right to strike’, which has almost 160,000 signatures at the time of writing. Another by the TUC has over 100,000. The appetite is there for a serious fightback.
Responding to the Tories’ latest anti-union announcement, Matt Wrack, general secretary of the firefighters’ union, correctly called for “a mass movement of resistance to this authoritarian attack”.
Such resistance must utilise all means at our disposal. Mass rallies, demonstrations, coordinated action, and even a one-day general strike: the labour movement must use any means necessary to defend itself in this class war.
Encouragingly, left-led PCS has pointed the way forward, calling out 100,000 civil servants for the 1 February day of action. Other unions must join this mobilisation. The call must be: all forces to the point of attack!
The new legislation, dubbed the Minimum Service Levels Bill, targets six sectors in particular: rail, health, education, border security, fire services, and nuclear decommissioning.
The bill was initially floated by the Tories in their 2019 manifesto, and revived again under the short-lived Truss regime, in response to the ongoing strikes by the RMT.
But the extension of the bill to the wider public sector is clearly a response to the fact that action has spread – and is spreading – to key workers such as nurses, ambulance drivers, immigration officials, teachers, junior doctors, and firefighters.
Cynically, Shapps and co. have even taken to referring to the bill as providing ‘minimum safety levels’, implying that strikes are putting the public in danger.
But when ambulance drivers have struck, for example, they have continued to respond to essential emergency cases.
And in fact, as pointed out by many striking workers and union activists, it is low pay and intolerable conditions that are making public services unsafe.
As the RCN has argued, for example, a decade of declining real wages for nurses has led to fewer staff, more vacancies and shortages, more burnout, and greater stresses on remaining health workers.
Similarly, on the railways, the bosses’ proposals to cut safety-critical jobs are a main driver behind the RMT’s dispute.
The suggestion that new repressive laws against the right to strike are needed to keep the public safe is therefore a barefaced lie. It is the Tories and their big business buddies who are the real dangers to public safety. And it is the unions who are fighting for safe, decent, fully-funded services for all.
By proposing this bill, the ruling class is also making it clear who they intend to make pay for the crisis of capitalism – the working class.
Even after 12 years of austerity and wage restraints, the Tories are intent on continuing their policy of below-inflation pay rises for public sector workers.
But with Sunak and Hunt looking to implement another £50 billion in cuts, in order to restore a semblance of stability for British capitalism, the worst is yet to come. And anticipating further industrial struggles, the Tories are preparing for a showdown.
This incendiary move has even provoked stern words from His Majesty’s (sickeningly) Loyal Opposition, with the Labour leaders pledging that they “will oppose this bill” and would “repeal these restrictions on the right to strike” if in power.
Similarly, the Scottish National Party has come out against these Tory laws, with SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon saying: “The way you resolve industrial disputes is by negotiations, not by legislating to take away workers’ rights.”
Such comments – hypocritically coming from political leaders who have consistently antagonised striking workers – show the thinking of a section of the establishment, who are concerned that the Tories are pouring petrol on the fire with their anti-union proposals.
The Financial Times, a serious mouthpiece of British capitalism, shares these worries, calling instead for the government to settle disputes and calm the situation through negotiations and compromise. “You can’t legislate your way into better labour relations,” the FT concludes.
But even with a new ‘responsible’ leadership at the helm, the Tories are not completely under the control of the ruling class. Instead, Rishi Sunak is pandering to his party’s rabid backbenchers, to whom he must continue to throw generous portions of red meat – including further attacks on the trade unions.
Above all, what this shows is the dead-end facing the ruling class, which is increasingly split in the face of British capitalism’s deepening crisis.
One wing demands reforms, fearing the potentially explosive effects of further anti-union restrictions. The other demands repression, meanwhile, unwilling to make concessions for fear that workers’ appetite will grow with eating.
Whether the bill will actually be implemented remains unclear. Some have suggested that it would be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, or that it could be held up in the House of Lords.
‘Sensible’ sections of the ruling class – those preferring industrial peace over continual strife – may look to block, or at least blunt, the bill through these bodies, concerned that it could be the spark for a social explosion.
In any case, as emphasised above, the labour movement cannot have any faith in Parliament or the courts.
Instead, the organised working class should rely on its own strength – a strength which it is now rediscovering – and mobilise to smash these Tory laws to pieces through militant, united action.
Only class struggle methods – mass strikes and street protests – can defeat the Tories’ anti-union attacks and austerity agenda, and overthrow the capitalist system that is at the root of workers’ problems.