How the Free Our Unions campaign has developed

In June the RMT became the third national union to back the Free Our Unions campaign, after the FBU and IWGB. Free Our Unions is a campaign The Clarion has been central to developing. This article explains what it is, how it has developed and what it has done so far.

Free Our Unions seeks to mobilise the labour movement – trade unions, Labour Party and associated organisations – for repeal of all anti-union laws and their replacement with strong legal rights for workers and unions, including a strong and unrestricted right to strike. The campaign has argued that carrying out this out, or failing to, will be an acid test for a Corbyn government. (See the many articles collected here for the political ideas and arguments behind the campaign.)

This initiative developed somewhat accidentally at first, but politically it did not come out of nowhere. A number of people involved in The Clarion were involved in an earlier initiative called Right to Strike, set up in 2015 to organise against the Trade Union Bill when most unions were doing very little. Right to Strike also raised the wider question of the anti-union laws, and managed to get policy calling for a strong right to strike through the 2015 Labour Party conference (reference to repealing the anti-union laws was knocked out in the compositing meeting). This work in turn reflected still earlier campaigning to repeal the anti-union laws, particularly in the 1990s, which some older comrades had been involved in.

The first issue of The Clarion was published for the September 2016 Labour Party conference. In the run up to the September 2017 conference, we wrote and circulated a number of model motions, including (with the experience of Right to Strike in our minds) one on the anti-union laws which was submitted by several CLPs.

This time, thanks to some effective work at the compositing meeting by a delegate from Charnwood CLP, plus unexpected support from the GMB, crucial wording about repealing the anti-union laws introduced in the 1980s and 90s (as well as the 2016 Trade Union Act) made it into the final composite – which the conference then passed unanimously.

A month later the front page of The Clarion called for a campaign for the 2017 and 2015 policy to be carried out, noting that even under Corbyn Labour had been extremely vague on this. As more time passed and nothing happened it became increasingly clear that a campaign would be necessary.

We started collecting articles and materials on our website but it was obvious that more was needed. Working with activists in a number of union branches, we put together a statement welcoming Labour’s conference policy, calling for it to be argued and fought for, and setting out some clear demands based on it. Launched by the January 2018 AGM of Lambeth local government Unison, this soon began to pick up support and became the core around which what would become Free Our Unions developed.

We felt that it was important to start in the unions and build up a head of a steam there. We were aware that most unions have on-paper policy for repeal of the anti-union laws but do little to fight for, or even talk about, it.

For its first eight months the campaign, which did not have a name and was not branded as a campaign, was mainly a ‘literary’ one. We published articles, collecting them with other materials on the anti-union laws page of our site, and circulated the statement to as many union branches as possible. We also got support from the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), then evolving beyond its original London base towards becoming a national union.

We were reluctant to set up a formal campaign partly because of limited capacity and partly because we did not to come across as competition for the existing Campaign for Trade Union Freedom. However we soon came to the conclusion that the CTUF no longer existed as a campaign in any meaningful sense, or an organisation it was possible to get involved in; and that in any case its output on the question of repealing the anti-union laws was distinctly and increasingly woolly. Particularly because of that we felt we had a responsibility to step up further.

From September 2018, we did that, starting by producing a Free Our Unions pamphlet which we launched at a successful Labour Party conference fringe meeting. In July 2019, the pamphlet has just been published in its fifth edition and we think it has sold about 4,000 copies, in bulk order for union organisations as well as to individuals.

Because of our input, the Brexit policy passed by the 2018 conference referred to a “radical government… abolishing anti-union laws”.

After that we began to organise public meetings and events in different cities, as well as speaking at union branches, union reps training and so on. We also started holding London organising meetings for the campaign.

The Labour fringe meeting led to what has become an extremely fruitful relationship, with the Fire Brigades Union. FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack spoke at the meeting, along with North West FBU Regional Secretary Mark Rowe, and a number of FBU activists attended. Following that, we were invited to the FBU’s National Education School in Sheffield, where we made quite a number of contacts; and we began to be invited to FBU organisations around the country. You’ll note the large number of FBU signatories on the Free Our Unions statement, particularly in the union’s Eastern Region.

We worked with FBU officers and activists, locally and nationally, on a number of initiatives. In May 2019 we held a fringe meeting at FBU conference, followed the next day by delegates voting unanimously to back the campaign.

In the second half of 2018 and particularly the first half of 2019 we organised interventions of various sorts and on various scales at a number of union conferences – Prospect, Unite, PCS, GMB, ASLEF, CWU, Unison, NEU, RMT. In June RMT conference voted to join the FBU and IWGB as national unions supporting Free Our Unions. Only in Prospect was our motion (fairly narrowly) defeated. In several cases what we got submitted was unfortunately not reached on the agenda. In Unite, GMB, Unison and NEU we won clear policy for repeal of all anti-union laws, but for various reasons did not include formal support for our campaign.

Meanwhile the Free Our Unions statement continued to pick up support from branches, trades councils and other union bodies. We hope to expand this list, including with more national unions, over the next few months. We also want to do more to help all organisations that have supported the statement become active around its demands.

The 2019 Lambeth Unison AGM welcomed what we had achieved and reaffirmed the branch’s support and determination to take this forward. By this time we and others involved were talking quite definitely about the “Free Our Unions campaign”.

We have tried, with pretty small resources, to be creative. We have held social events as well as meetings. We have produced a video of union activists talking about the issues and why this is such a crucial struggle, which will be out soon. We have linked up with various groups of workers in dispute and other campaigners, including the school student climate strikers (some of whom have now begun to relate seriously to the issue of the anti-union laws). We have organised some demonstrations and direct action, though not nearly enough.

We have gradually built up what we think is a really good collection of articles and materials on the anti-union laws and the related political issues, something with no parallel anywhere else – in addition to the summary contained in the Free Our Unions pamphlet.

Once we started to make some headway in the unions, we also organised to take the campaign back into the Labour Party, for instance through the policy forum structures (see here and here). We worked with London region Communication Workers’ Union to get policy passed through London Labour Party conference. We have now started to get support for the campaign from individual CLPs and Labour MPs.

We are proud of what we have achieved on a vital issue which, frankly, hardly anyone else was actively raising – not only promoting it through our own efforts, but rousing wider forces in the movement to put their policies on this into action. As the campaign has grown it has become evident how much more there is to do in order to win – from the highest levels of the labour movement’s structures to grassroots campaigning. We believe a much bigger campaign is now possible.

We are holding our next London organising meeting on 18 July. Please come along and in any case, get in touch to feed into and get involved in the campaign. We’ll post an update on our next steps soon.

• Free Our Unions organising meeting: 7.30pm, Thursday 18 July, at the Lambeth Unison office in Brixton, South London: Blue Star House, 244-34 Stockwell Road, SW9 9SP. Facebook event

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