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Assert the right to strike

Education staff on the march at the TUC rally against anti-union laws in Cheltenham on 27 January. Photo Workers.

The capitalist class wants to shackle organised workers. That’s the whole point of its recent legislation on minimum service levels. What can we do about it?

Understandably, a lot of people really don’t like this government. They say it’s venal, corrupt, unprincipled and vindictive.

Is anything changing? Under new legislation, it’s promising adequate levels of important public services, and the extension of these improvements to even more areas of life: trains will run on time, ambulances will be available at a moment’s notice, our borders will be permanently guarded, and the same guarantees will be extended to healthcare and schools.

Except that we’ll only get these new minimum services levels (MSL) when we’re on strike. Because the latest anti-trade union legislation isn’t about service at all. The clue is in its name: the Strikes (MSL) Act. This is about strikes, and how to stop them or, to be precise, stop them being effective. It has nothing to do with levels of service.

Too effective

The government’s problem is that workers have been too effective. We’ve won some important disputes by using strike action. In the rail industry both Aslef and RMT have wrenched concessions from the train operating companies.

And on a bigger scale, health unions, principally Unison, not only achieved a massively increased pay offer for a million workers – pandemic heroes, let’s not forget – from a reluctant government but also established direct negotiations for the first time in a generation.

The government has changed the law precisely to stop us doing it again. This law puts a weapon in the hands of employers not, in the first instance, the state. It will be for employers to use this law to attack unions.

Where we are strong, we will work with employers to ensure they don’t issue the work orders which the Act provides for. But if we are weak in the six given areas of employment (health, fire and rescue, education, transport, nuclear decommissioning, and border security), employers can issue lists of named workers who must work on specified strike days; scab, as we used to say.

And unions that don’t cooperate can be prosecuted, and fined up to £1 million for each offence.

Those unions covering those six areas should feel proud that they have been subject to this legislation. It is a massive, although unintended, compliment.

‘In Britain unions were born and maintained in illegality…’

In Britain trade unions were born and maintained in illegality. As soon as they became visible to the employers and their state, they made unions illegal. It was a crime to combine. Just how illegal unions have been throughout history and their level of activity is a good way of gauging the balance of power between our class, the working class, and their class, the ruling capitalist class.

When we were weak, at the start of the industrial revolution, union organisers were transported or even executed. With a million men under arms at the end of the second world war, workers could impose a kind of welfare state on an unwilling ruling class. We could have taken control then, but the political nerve was missing.

Of course, capitalism would prefer to completely eradicate unions. The new legislation has to settle for suppressing strikes, as every law applied to unions dating back to the sixteenth century has done.

Recent union experience, for example in the ambulance service, has been that on days of strike action the workforce and their union ran the service. That’s true for any industry or service where the union is strong enough and numerous enough to impose itself.

Unions are well-versed in developing a minimum level of emergency service; it is not in their interest to see workers die or suffer through not being able to get emergency care when they need it.

On ambulance strike days we saw a service level no worse, and in some ways better, than on non-strike days. That was due to an efficient system of control and dispatch, close working with managers (mostly union members) and a lower call rate (due to the discipline of people generally).

The same applied to some of the earlier (but only the earlier) strikes of junior doctors – because work was covered by the more highly-skilled consultants.


It’s easy to make fun of the legislation. But its deeply malignant intent must not be missed. The aim has always been to make it impossible for workers to use their collective strength against employers.

The ruling class consistently opposes independent trade unions because they see in them the kernel, the possibility, of something more – of disciplined authority outside their control. An authority which could give workers the idea that they can run society without their employers.

That is exactly what happens when you’re on strike; you run the show. That’s why employers hate it and that’s why they’ll do almost anything to stop it.

The problem is that workers are victims of their own success. Because they have found a way to carry on in spite of it all, they think that all anti-union legislation can be dealt with or lived with.

Even worse, they think that, especially in an election year, all they need do is vote Labour and the problem will be solved. All we need to say to anyone who believes this is ask, how much anti-union law did Labour ever repeal?

So how to assert the right to strike? Actually, there is no right to strike. Every strike needs the authorisation of one law or another, some putative right to strike legislation, whether domestic, European or from the UN, won’t trump that.

You can’t for example, legally go on strike to get this most recent legislation repealed; that would be explicitly unlawful. This is starkly unlike the pinnacle of industrial action led by the Amalgamated Engineering Union fifty years ago. That action was effectively a general strike to prevent an anti-trade union law, the Industrial Relations Act, being applied.

In these times, for industrial action to be lawful, you need to establish a trade dispute. Then ballot – postal, not electronic, just to make it more difficult. Then get a majority, on a specified turnout.


Then you have to tell the employer when you’re going on strike and precisely what you intend to do. In effect it’s not so much anti-strike legislation as anti-guerrilla struggle legislation, because it’s the telegraphing your intentions in advance, which can neuter the action.

Workers will still have to fight over the issues on which they have always fought: pay, conditions of employment, jobs. If they are strong, a canny employer will not use the legislation against them.

We have recently seen Aslef hit back at an employer who issued work notices. Government-owned LNER was the only train operating company which said it would impose MSLs. Aslef immediately focused on this company: LNER drivers would strike again for five days from 5 February. The company backed down. “Focused, united, smart” sums up the drivers’ action.

The overall lesson must be that no matter how good we are at evading attempts to criminalise us, it is they, a ruling class intent on war with workers at home and war abroad, who are criminal; so we should criminalise them.

We may be adept at defending ourselves, but perpetual defence is perpetual subjection. We haven’t come this far as organised workers to exist only at the whim of the world’s oldest and most legally obsessed ruling class.

• This article is based on a CPBML online discussion group held in February.