The Tories have finally released the details of their legislation on Minimum Service Levels (MSL), having passed these new anti-union restrictions into law earlier this year.
The MSL bill effectively denies thousands of workers their right to strike. Train operators will have to run 40% of normal services. And ambulances in England will have to respond to life-threatening cases during strikes – never mind that many NHS unions already ensure that this is the case!
Alongside this, Border Force staff will be required to maintain a service “no less effective than if a strike were not taking place”. And Passport Office employees needed for “national security” reasons will always be required to work.
Today, meanwhile, the government announced that – starting in the next academic year – they will be unilaterally imposing such restrictions in schools and colleges, provoking fury amongst education unions.
In response to the threat of MSLs, the TUC has called for a special congress to be held on 9 December. This meeting must act as a council of class war. After all, it is clear that the Tories and bosses have already declared war on workers.
🧵“The attempt to impose further restrictions on our democratic freedoms is shameful. This Government wants to be tough on strikes, but not on the causes of strikes.👇
— National Education Union (@NEUnion) November 28, 2023
TUC general secretary Paul Nowak has described the legislation as “unworkable, undemocratic, and almost certainly in breach of international law”. Each of these claims deserves its own response.
Firstly, this legislation will only be unworkable only if the trade unions ensure that is the case. There must be a blanket approach of non-compliance across the entire labour movement, as was agreed at TUC Congress this year.
This must be accompanied with a national campaign of action to actually force the repeal of these Tory laws.
The special congress will set a date for a national demonstration. But more than one march will be required to defeat this latest attack on the unions.
There must be mass, escalating demonstrations in every town and city; coordinated, organised resistance in every workplace; and even a one-day general strike.
The TUC should also make clear that if any employer decides to act on this legislation, then they will be met with the full force of the trade union movement. An injury to one is an injury to all!
In such a situation, all options should be on the table – upto-and-including an all-out general strike, if necessary.
Secondly, we agree that the law is undemocratic.
Indeed, this anti-strike attack is part of a wider assault on democratic rights in Britain that the Tories have unleashed in recent years: from restrictions on protest; to more recent repression against the Palestine solidarity movement.
But such trampling over democratic rights is run of the mill in all capitalist countries in any period of crisis and intensified class struggle. After all, as Lenin once remarked, bourgeois democracy is only ever “a democracy for the rich”.
The TUC leadership must loudly point this out as part of its campaign, and raise the need for real, workers’ democracy – putting the working class in control of industry and society.
Nowak may be correct in saying that this legislation breaches international law. This is almost certainly the case.
But surely recent weeks have shown – with Israel’s use of white phosphorus and cutting off of humanitarian aid to Gaza – that ‘international law’ is not worth the paper it’s written on when push comes to shove?
Both in military wars and the class war, such laws are ignored as necessary by the ruling class, occasionally wheeled out when it suits the interests of one set of gangsters or another.
Such a statement by Nowak is to be expected. He and other more conservative elements in the trade union movement have consistently looked towards the legal system when it comes to challenging the bosses’ laws.
But this supposes that the courts are somehow a neutral body. And this is evidently not the case.
That was demonstrated just recently, with the UK Supreme Court ruling that Deliveroo riders cannot be considered employees. The result is that gig economy workers do not have claim to the collective rights and protections that ordinary workers have.
The conclusion is clear: bourgeois judges are no friend of the working class. To defend themselves against the bosses attacks, workers must rely on their own organisation and strength.
The upcoming TUC special congress will be the first such meeting since 1982. This previous event, as now, was held in response to the Tory government implementing draconian restrictions on the unions, which had grown in strength and militancy throughout the 1970s.
Led by Thatcher, the Tories took extensive measures against the unions almost from the moment they were elected – seeking to smash the power of the organised working class so that they could carry through their assaults on behalf of the bosses.
To name a few examples: picket line limits were introduced, restricting them to just six union members; while sympathy strikes and political strikes were outlawed.
Employers were also given the right to take out injunctions against unions – a measure still used to halt strikes today, with Royal Mail bosses weaponising this law against the CWU in recent years.
Unfortunately, however, in 1982, despite a special congress being called, a united militant response was not forthcoming from the trade union leaders.
Many unions fought back in those years, such as the NGA and the NUM. Nevertheless, these Tory laws were implemented, and attacks on the working class were carried through, with militant unions left isolated by the wider movement, allowing them to be picked off one by one.
From then on, the unions were effectively fighting with one hand tied behind their backs. The working class became defenceless. This gave the bosses a green light for their all-out offensive against pay and conditions, nationalised industries, and workers’ rights.
Thatcher’s onslaught was part of a general international offensive by the capitalist class across the world. Ronald Reagan led similar attacks against the working class in the USA. And the collapse of the Soviet Union saw the ruling class and its apologists declaring the triumph of the free market and the ‘end of history’.
Across the world, for a whole period, the working class was pushed back and temporarily defeated.
But today, we are living in an era “where the working class is back”, in the words of RMT leader Mick Lynch, and is rediscovering its strength – especially here in Britain. The strike wave of 2022-23 was just the beginning.
The coming period will therefore be less like the 1980s, and more similar to the 1970s in Britain: an epoch of militant action and class battles between organised workers and the ruling class.
Forced into a corner, workers will no longer accept meekness and deference before the bosses. And under this pressure, the trade union leaders will be forced to act.
The smarter elements within the ruling class are aware of this fact.
Yes, the Tories have been keen to rush through this legislation, as red meat for their diminishing electoral base.
But the bosses themselves may be wary of actually following through with it. They are cautious of the Pandora’s Box that could be opened if they did exercise this law.
As Mick Lynch pointed out, the Tories own assessment of these laws showed that they could actually lead to further strikes, as they will “enflame” industrial relations.
Regardless, potential hesitancy on the part of the ruling class cannot be relied on. Nor can any verbal promises to repeal this law from Starmer. The Labour leader has shown repeatedly that his pledges are as useless as a chocolate teapot!
This is no time for complacency, nor for reliance on the courts or Westminster. MSLs pose an existential threat to the trade union movement. The union leaders must step up to the plate and build mass working-class resistance to smash the bosses’ laws.
We, the communists, will participate in this resistance – wherever we are, and whatever form it takes.
In this movement, we will continuously make clear that our rights, and any genuine reforms, will only be won through mass action and militant struggle. Only by fighting for socialism can we guarantee real freedom and dignity for the working class.