Free our trade unions, say Labour MPs, union leaders and grassroots activists

Labour MPs, trade union leaders and grassroots activists have signed an open letter organised by the Free Our Unions campaign to highlight “the urgency of fighting the anti-trade union laws” amid the coronavirus pandemic.

A group of parliamentarians, including Jonathan Ashworth’s parliamentary private secretary Nadia Whittome, have come together with the UCU, party-affiliated Bakers’ Union and other trade unions to support the move.

The joint statement criticises the last Labour government for failing to repeal anti-union legislation and accuses the Tories now of seeking to “further restrict rights” via “minimum service requirements” during transport strikes.

On the Conservative government, the letter predicts: “As we move forward, they will seek to make workers pay the price for the pandemic, obstruct the demands of the anti-racism movement, and block the path out of catastrophic climate change.”

“We will need the maximum legal and effective freedom for our movement to resist, including an unimpeded right to strike… Workers need the right to strike as an instrument of political protest and social solidarity.”

The signatories have committed to “fighting for the repeal of all the anti-union laws and their replacement with strong legal rights for workers and unions, including strong rights to strike and picket”.

Commenting on the open letter, Free Our Unions co-organiser Daniel Randall said: “The pandemic has reinforced how much of a barrier Britain’s anti-union and anti-strike laws are to defending and improving workplace health and safety.

“The lengthy notice periods and bureaucratic hurdles placed in front of unions are designed to slow us down and prevent us from using industrial action as an immediate response to workplace issues, and from asserting our own demands.

“That’s why much of the workers’ action to defend rights, safety, and conditions we’ve seen around pandemic-related issues has been ‘unofficial’, such as the Glasgow refuse workers’ walkout on September 8th.”

The SNP-controlled Glasgow City Council was criticised by figures on the left including Labour councillor Matt Kerr after describing the strike action organised by GMB Scotland as “illegal”. The staff have since returned to work.

The RMT activist added: “At the same time, workers’ ability to leverage our power over the production process as part of political and democratic self-expression is radically restricted by the ban on strikes over “political” issues.

“This ban is one of the most significant brakes on democratic action in Britain today. How much more powerful would the Black Lives Matter struggle and movements against climate change be if they could call on the power of strikes and other industrial action as well as marches and rallies?”

Below is the full text of the open letter and its signatories.

From Covid-19 to climate change and Black Lives Matter, the multiple crises we are facing highlight the urgency of fighting the anti-trade union laws.

Workers’ rights, particularly the right to strike, are key to protecting and promoting our collective health and welfare and enforcing social change. By taking action together, workers create power to win their demands. Faced with so many injustices – deaths of key workers like Belly Mujinga, millions forced to work in unsafe conditions, the lack of action to prevent mass unemployment – it is vital that unions can be vehicles to right these wrongs.

Successive Tory governments have legislated to restrict union and strike activity; the last Labour government did nothing to repeal them. The coronavirus crisis, which has made postal ballots difficult and demanded swift and decisive action unrestricted by arduous legal procedures, has highlighted the damaging effect of these restrictions.

The Tories already have policy to further restrict rights by imposing “minimum service requirements” during transport workers’ strikes. As we move forward, they will seek to make workers pay the price for the pandemic, obstruct the demands of the anti-racism movement, and block the path out of catastrophic climate change. We will need the maximum legal and effective freedom for our movement to resist, including an unimpeded right to strike.

Both the Black Lives Matter struggle and the ongoing climate crisis are highlighting the need for a right to take action over wider issues than only wages, terms and conditions. Workers need the right to strike as an instrument of political protest and social solidarity.

We therefore commit to fighting for repeal of all the anti-union laws and their replacement with strong legal rights for workers and unions, including strong rights to strike and picket.

We welcome the policy to this effect passed at TUC Congress last year and at multiple Labour Party conferences, and will campaign actively to achieve it.

Letter organised by the Free Our Unions campaign (freeourunions.org)

Signed (all in a personal capacity):

Nadia Whittome MP
Apsana Begum MP
Clive Lewis MP
Claudie Webbe MP
Ian Byrne MP
Mick Whitley MP
Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP
Michelle Rodgers (President, RMT)
Roger McKenzie (Assistant General Secretary, UNISON)
Hugo Pierre (National Executive Committee, UNISON)
Paul Holmes (National Executive Committee, UNISON)
Ruth Cashman (Joint Branch Secretary, Lambeth UNISON)
Simon Hannah (Joint Branch Secretary, Lambeth UNISON)
Jo Grady (General Secretary, UCU)
Henry Lopez (President, IWGB)
Sarah Woolley (General Secretary, BFAWU)
Ian Hodson (President, BFAWU)
John Moloney (Assistant General Secretary, PCS)
Chris Marks (National Executive Committee, PCS)
Bev Laidlaw (National Executive Committee, PCS)
Phil Dickens (National Executive Committee, PCS)
Riccardo La Torre (National Officer, FBU)
Ben Selby (National Executive Committee, FBU)
Hazel Danson (National Treasurer, NEU)
Patrick Murphy (National Executive Committee, NEU)
Tracey McGuire (National Executive Committee, NEU)
Rob Illingworth (National Executive Committee, NEU)
Kirstie Paton (National Executive Committee, NEU)
Nicky Downes (National Executive Committee, NEU)
Annette Pryce (National Executive Committee, NEU)
Nick Wigmore (National Executive Committee, NEU)
Daniel Randall (Assistant Chair, RMT Bakerloo branch and Free Our Unions co-organiser)

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