Home > Economics, unions and work > Work and Trade Unions > Dare to struggle, dare to win: overcoming the latest assault on workers’ rights

Dare to struggle, dare to win: overcoming the latest assault on workers’ rights

Unions must re-build a militant rank-and-file movement to fight anti-worker legislation. Petitions and legal manoeuvring will not do, argues Paul O’Connell

5 to 7 minute read

A protest march with banners and red flags. In the background an advertising column features a poster of a blonde model which seems to be staring back at the camera

The government’s proposals to compel workers in designated sectors to provide so called ‘minimum service levels’ on strike days is an attempt to make strikes ineffectual. The British Medical Association has stated that from a government which has gutted the NHS, introducing anti-worker legislation in the name of protecting patient safety is both laughable and dangerous. The new head of the TUC, Paul Nowak, has said that trade unions will oppose the proposed laws ‘in both parliament and the courts’.

Employment law specialists have pointed out that the proposed legislation will likely run afoul of both International Labour Organisation standards, and the right to strike guaranteed, as it is, in the European Convention on Human Rights. As such, it is likely that the proposed new law will face opposition during the legislative process and, if enacted, in the courts. Such opposition, along with the petitions organised by media campaign groups such as Enough is Enough, is, of course, welcome – but in the context of the current crisis, it is wholly inadequate.

The capitalist state

This proposed new law brings two key issues to the fore: the nature and role of the state, and the broad question of trade union tactics. On the first point, the proposals from Sunak and co., as well as the way in which the government has engaged with strikes over the last year, make clear that the state is not neutral. Or, rather, that the state may play the role of neutral arbiter, but this façade soon ceases once there is a meaningful threat to the interests of the wealthy and ruling classes.

The current wave of strikes in Britain are about the profound decline in living standards experienced by British workers (exacerbated by covid-19, the war in Ukraine, and the impending global depression), but falling real wages and living standards have been a reality for more than a decade.

So, while the strikes are about ‘bread and butter’ issues they are also, at a deeper level, about contesting the status quo. The demands of rail and postal workers, followed now by NHS and education workers, show leading elements of an entire class rejecting the idea that the rich should be left to get richer, while working class people are ground down.

History has shown us that it is only active, militant, rank-and-file trade unionism that delivers victories for the working class

The government’s steadfast opposition to the strikes is, therefore, less about specific pay claims, and more about defending and legitimating a system that allows food banks and billionaires to proliferate at the same time. The hardening of the government’s line is a response to the profound crisis of the capitalist system, and the need to break an embryonic workers’ movement. It is, in effect, a government and ruling class offensive that emulates Thatcher’s old slogan: there is no alternative.

These proposed new anti-union laws are of a piece with the battery of repressive legislation that has been introduced over the last three years. Faced with the deepening crisis of the capitalist system, a government could either embark on the fundamental structural changes needed to address the root causes of growing inequality, climate breakdown and so on, or intervene to police opposition to the system. Invariably, the government has chosen to do the latter.

Confronted with a government mobilised to remorselessly advance the interests of the ruling classes, petitions and emails to sitting MPs are, at best, likely to prove ineffectual. Given the mechanics of the British constitution, the government will be able to push through its proposals, with perhaps minor tweaks conceded in the House of Lords. If, as the head of the TUC has indicated, the focus of unions would be to challenge the new law in the courts, we should be clear that this would be the paltriest form of ‘resistance’.

It is likely that discrete cases could be won on aspects of the law, and how it is implemented, but this will do little more than lead to a fine tuning of the new restrictions. What’s more, a national trade union body that looks, first, to parliament and the courts reveals a much deeper malaise in the British trade union movement. The noises coming from the TUC, and others, which prioritise ‘fighting’ this proposed new law ‘in parliament and the courts’ reproduce the very illusion about the neutrality of the state that the government’s daily practices put paid to.

This confusion and timidity are born from decades of trade union defeat and decline in Britain, coupled with a form of trade unionism which substitutes top-down, institutional compromises and fixes for the potential power of a mobilised, militant mass membership. History has shown us, time and again, that it is only active, militant, rank-and-file trade unionism that has delivered victories for the working class. This is true in the best of conditions, and even more so in the current context, marked by the deepening, structural crisis of the capitalist system.

Fighting to win

In his recent book Class Struggle Unionism Joe Burns makes a point which is apt for the current British context, noting that workers ‘make gains only when they struggle to break free of imposed legal limitations. There is zero chance we can revive unionism within existing labor law’. As such Burns argues that we ‘need to focus … on building a … workers movement capable of violating [the law]’. It is noteworthy in this regard that at the height of the last great period of working class advance and trade union strength in Britain, the late 60s and early 70s, 95 per cent of all strikes were unofficial actions.

Times have, of course, changed and both the trade union movement and broader working class are more socially fragmented and politically weaker than they were in the past, but the lesson from that period still holds. In the face of a determined government and ruling class onslaught, in the wider context of the structural crisis of the whole capitalist system, petitions, letters to MPs, challenges in the courts and social media campaigns will do little or nothing to blunt the force of the attack, and in fact may serve as unhelpful distractions from the real work that needs to be done.

Instead, as Burns notes and history affirms, we need to shift from a trade union movement that accommodates itself to the most draconian, anti-union laws in Europe, and appeals to the organs of the capitalist state, to one which rejects and contests the entire edifice. This places an onus on all workers to not only join a union, but to work within their workplace to build fighting unions – unions that demand a fundamental change to society, rather than plead for paltry crumbs.

To rebuild the trade union movement, to meaningfully defend the right to strike, and to begin a serious fightback against the imposition of the costs of capitalism’s crisis on the working class, we need to put our energy into workplace and community organising, bolstering and expanding networks of militant rank-and-file workers, and making clear that the limits imposed on workers struggle by the capitalist class and its servants in the capitalist state, are not limits that the workers movement will meekly endure.

Paul O’Connell is a socialist and trade unionist. He teaches law at SOAS, University of London

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