Labour’s manifesto and the right to strike: a welcome step forward, more to fight for

Statement from the Free Our Unions campaign

In the general election, Free Our Unions is working to kick out the Tories and win a government led by Jeremy Corbyn. In the words of a Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack, a Labour government can “deliver a shift in power away from wealthy elites and towards workers. The Tories and Liberal Democrats have left the country… in tatters. We must remove them from power.”

We welcome the range of policies to strengthen workers’ rights contained in Labour’s manifesto. This statement is focused on the section covering the anti-union laws and the right to strike – because that is crucial to all aspects of workers’ rights and to many other issues, because it has been most controversial in the party, and because it is where there is most room for improvement.

On this, the manifesto is encouraging. There is a lot to be strengthened and clarified, but two years of campaigning in the labour movement seems to have shifted the leadership in the right direction. More campaigning and pressure can shift things further.

The 2019 manifesto reiterates commitments from 2017 by promising to allow “secure electronic and workplace ballots” and “bring UK law into line with the International Labour Organisation standards it has ratified [which in part concern the right to strike], so Britain leads the world, instead of engaging in a race to the bottom”.

Unlike the 2017 manifesto, the 2019 one refers to the right to strike, promising to “remove unnecessary restrictions on industrial action”. Perhaps most importantly, where the 2017 manifesto promised only to “repeal the [2016] Trade Union Act”, it pledges to “repeal anti-trade union legislation including the Trade Union Act 2016 [our emphasis] and create new rights and freedoms for trade unions to help them win a better deal for working people.”

Other aspects, for instance on preventing blacklisting, victimisation and harassment of trade unionists, are also strengthened.

So definite movement in the right direction. We would, however, add the following:

• Remove “unnecessary restrictions on industrial action”? What existing restrictions are necessary? It depends, of course, what “necessary” refers to. Necessary for what? We argue that, at the very least, all restrictions introduced after 1979 must go.
• The question of notice periods for strikes, not touched on here, is absolutely crucial. Notice periods should be abolished.
• So is the right to take solidarity action in support of other workers. This right, in the words of the Institute of Employment Rights, is at the core of the “whole ethos of the trade union movement”. It needs to be reinstated.
• The right to picket unrestricted, your own workplace but also other workplaces, is also essential, but not mentioned.
• As demonstrated most dramatically by school students’ call for workers to join the climate strikes, workers need the right to strike over any issue they choose, including political issues – not just narrowly-defined industrial or workplace issues.
• Workplace and electronic ballots of any sort would be a serious step forward, but this is still an evasion. Why should the right to strike be subjected to tightly controlled legal procedures? Why shouldn’t workers be able to choose to take industrial action by any means we see fit?

The immediate way to facilitate all this is to repeal all the anti-union laws (including the 2016 Trade Union Act, but also at least eight others back to 1980), replacing them with positive legisation to support these rights. We welcome the manifesto’s implication Labour would or could repeal earlier anti-union laws, cutting through the nonsensical idea that has recently gained currency that repeal is somehow no longer necessary.

This is in line with the policy passed at the 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019 Labour conferences, at TUC Congress 2019 and at the conferences of numerous individual unions.

Over the next three weeks we must focus on winning a Labour government, but let’s also prepare to build further pressure to win a clear victory on repealing the anti-union laws and reinstating the right to strike.

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