England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Workers’ rights are under attack, but where are the TUC?

By Francesco Sani, Socialist Alternative Leicester and UCU member

On Saturday 27 January, the Trades Union Congress held a national mobilisation of trade unionists in the town of Cheltenham. This rally, attended by around 5,000, was called to protest the new Strike (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023, which effectively makes strike action illegal in the overwhelming majority of cases. This is based on the false idea that strike action is ‘harmful to ordinary people’. 

This blatant attempt to criminalise the right to strike is of course deeply linked with Tory calls to criminalise Palestine solidarity protests. It is fundamentally about repressing any effective expression of dissent towards the policies of capitalist governments, whether against the increases in cost of living, or the ramped up warmongering. 

It appeared that all of the TUC-affiliated unions had delegations present on the march, most of them with banners leading the procession as it arrived in Cheltenham’s Montpellier Gardens in the early afternoon. The numerous General Secretaries of unions speaking from the platform spoke out in defence of workers’ rights. Sharon Graham, General Secretary of Unite the Union, struck a fighting note as she said that if the Tories want to attack our unions yet again, this is the “time to break the law”. 

This march showed the commitment of thousands of union activists to oppose all attacks on the freedom to strike and protest. Rank-and-file trade unionists also held up countless placards with messages of solidarity with the Palestinian people, showing the connection between the struggle against anti-worker attacks and against the ongoing massacre in Gaza. 

Weaknesses

However the march also revealed many noticeable shortcomings. The decision to hold a single march in a small, peripheral town like Cheltenham was clearly not enough. It is of course true that Cheltenham has enormous symbolic value for the trade union movement, as the site of one of the most infamous acts of trade union repression committed by Margaret Thatcher. Between 1984 and 1997, workers in the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham were banned from organising in a trade union under the pretext of so-called ‘national security’. But holding this lone march in a regionally isolated location, and not in a major city placed major limits on the impact of the demonstration. 

There were also clear weaknesses with the promotion of this event. While some unions did notify their memberships of this march (including my own union, UCU) many did not. The rally seems to have been advertised almost entirely by word of mouth in some unions. The TUC failed to use its substantial resources to put on well-promoted transport options, with the booking and scheduling of coaches left to the regional branches of individual unions. This left many areas of the country with no travelling options outside of private arrangements, which proved alienating for many union members who could not cover significant travelling costs for an event advertised with short notice.

Had these mistakes been corrected, and a clear message sent out to advertise the march for the general public, the day could have had a significant impact. It could have both attracted new sections of society into the unions, and helped to involve union members who still remain inactive in their unions. 

The broader mobilisations of the 2022-23 strike wave included mass mobilisations like that on 15 March 2023. On this day, almost one million education and civil service workers undertook strike action nationwide. In reality, had the union leaders carried out a programme of coordinating and escalating the strikes at this time, twinned with calling an anti-Minimum Service demonstration across the entire trade union movement at this time, it could have stopped the Tories in their tracks entirely. These are lessons which our movement can take on board for the next round of struggles.

Link the unions and anti-war movement! 

One big opportunity that the unions still have to boost their profile as a force of struggle is by boldly mobilising to be part of the ongoing mass movement against the bloody massacre in Gaza. Millions of ordinary people have joined actions of solidarity with the Palestinian people since last October, including hundreds of thousands of individual rank-and-file trade union members. With a clear organised presence from the trade union movement, the Palestine solidarity movement could draw out the point that the Tories have waged war on the right to protest for both of us, so we have a duty to unite in common struggle.

This is not just in the interests of the Palestine solidarity movement, but of the trade unions as well. The idea that has been put forward by some in the unions – such as Unite’s Sharon Graham that the workers’ movement should limit its focus to ‘jobs pay and conditions’ for instance, must be questioned and challenged. 

The logistical and political support that trade unions can provide to the anti-war movement is crucial. As we have pointed out in other articles, the workers movement must enact large-scale campaigns for the boycott of military goods. 

As we move towards a likely Starmer government in the coming years, a clear class struggle approach to fighting against attacks on our unions and our rights as workers will need to be mounted. Socialist Alternative is fighting to make this a reality. Join us! 

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