Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 53 Number 33, December 21, 2023 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Workers' Movement

TUC Holds Special Congress to Defend the Right to Strike

In response to the "unprecedented attack on the right to strike", the TUC held a Special Congress, its first in 41 years, on December 9. The Congress was prompted in particular by the passing of the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act in July when it was railroaded through parliament, its use being threatened during the present waves of action by rail and health workers.

Under the Act, the government can set a Minimum Service Level for strike action in certain sectors, with the Business Secretary imposing the service level through consultation merely with "such persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate". Employers then declare the categories and numbers of workers required to continue working during the dispute to deliver this imposed minimum level, issuing a work notice to this effect, which then legally requires workers to break the strike and return to work. This rule affects workers in healthcare, education, fire, transport, border security, and nuclear decommissioning. Workers may be sacked for violating rules, and unions, which are effectively required to police their own strikes, may face damages claims of up to £1 million for non-compliance. The TUC estimates that some 5.5 million workers in Britain are at risk of being deprived of the right to strike through the Act [1].

These latest anti-strike laws have faced widespread opposition, including from the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, ACAS, civil rights organisations, and race and gender equality groups. Even Iain Stewart, the Conservative chair of the transport select committee, criticised the legislation for potentially worsening employment relations and making services less reliable [2]. Elected mayors and council leaders across Britain have also warned that the anti-strike laws could lead to longer and more frequent walkouts, with a number promising to avoid issuing strike bans in their areas. [3]

The Special Congress committed to direct defiance of the Strikes Act, including that the TUC's affiliated unions should refuse to tell members to cross a picket line. If a union is under significant threat of sanction, the TUC executive will hold an emergency meeting to consider how to provide practical, industrial, financial, and political support. The TUC will defend any worker who exercises their right to strike and will call an urgent demonstration in the event a work notice is deployed and a union or worker is sanctioned in relation to a work notice.

"Although this draconian legislation has now passed through parliament, the trade union movement stands united in its continued opposition. We shall not rest until the malicious, unnecessary, and unworkable Strikes Act is repealed," declared the TUC General Council in its statement to the Special Congress [4]. "In every workplace where employers attempt to deploy and impose these draconian rules, they can expect the trade union movement to respond with a show of force and solidarity for any workers affected."

"At today's historic special Congress, we agree to continue our campaign of opposition and non-compliance - across workplaces and across the country," the statement added.

Not only did the TUC state its intent to resist in the workplace and courts, it also extended this to the court of public opinion. The TUC will name and shame employers and public bodies who deploy work notices as anti-union and anti-worker. At the same time, the TUC will actively promote collective action and develop solidarity plans for non-compliance. The TUC has also called a national march and rally in Cheltenham for Saturday, January 17, to protest against the attack on workers' rights and build the resistance [5].

As Workers' Weekly said in March [6], the Sunak government introduced the legislation with the aim of blocking the resistance of the workers to the stepped-up attacks on their rights and interests. The Act is intended to curtail the opposition to privatisation of public services and to undermine the developing movement to build a human-centred society, by creating a combined power held by the government and employers to deprive workers of their right to act in self-defence.

It therefore entrenches the serious disequilibrium that exists in the social relation between employer and employed, just as workers are declaring that Enough is Enough! and when the actions of health service workers, teachers, and other key public service workers are enjoying overwhelming public support, and while the ruling circles stand isolated and mired in a profound crisis of illegitimacy.

The government has taken the issue of self-defence to a new level with its attack. Under conditions of such disequilibrium, and of the deep-going anti-social offensive that is restructuring all the arrangements of state around politicising private interests, the unions are having to struggle to renew themselves to remain effective. They are having to look to their own methods and structures, so as to move beyond the limitations of a "civil society" that no longer even truly exists. They are fighting in the court of public opinion. For the workers, the issue of their own empowerment is on the agenda, including what mechanisms they need to build that can enable this empowerment so as to politicise their own interests, in the interests of the whole society.

1. "TUC announces special Congress to fight Conservative attack on the right to strike", TUC Press Release, November 7, 2023
2. "UK anti-strike law is 'galvanising moment' for unions, says TUC boss", Heather Stewart, The Guardian, December 8, 2023
3. "Mayors and council leaders vow to thwart anti-strikes laws ahead of TUC special congress", Morning Star, December 9, 2023
4. "General Council statement - special Congress 2023", TUC, December 9, 2023
5. "Protect the right to strike", TUC
6. "The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill: Anti-strike Bill Underscores Need for Continued Resistance to Exercise of Executive Powers", Workers' Weekly, March 8, 2023


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