After TUC special congress: defiance needs action, not just words

The TUC special Congress on December 9 was the first in 40 years - but it doesn't bode well that it decided to use the regular late January event marking Thatcher's ban on union membership at GCHQ as the occassion to call a national demonstration to protest these latest regulations. As a supporter of Free Our Unions argues here, Cheltenham is not central London and we need more than warm words.


Perhaps the most significant sentence in the resolution passed by the TUC special congress, held on 9 December to discuss the Tories’ latest anti-strike laws, is a commitment that unions will “refuse to tell [their] members to cross a picket line.”

If seriously enacted, this can only mean unions refusing to take the “reasonable steps” to ensure members comply with work notices which the law requires of them. That is the only collective form that “defiance”, “non-compliance”, or “resistance” can realistically take: unions refusing to tell members to comply with work notices and persisting with strikes in the face of injunctions or fines.

But it will take considerable work to bridge the likely gulf between words and deeds. Sadly we currently have a distinctly “telling-members-to-cross-picket-lines” culture in the movement. In multi-union industries, it is standard for non-striking unions to explicitly instruct their members to cross the picket lines of striking unions. Unions telling members to cross their own picket lines may be seen as a bridge too far, even by conservative officials, but with most unions currently not prepared to risk the relatively minor confrontation with the law required for them to tell members not to cross other unions’ picket lines, getting them to straightforwardly refuse to comply with the new law around work notices will be no small task. Nevertheless, it is necessary.

That the special congress, the TUC’s first in 40 years, even took place is significant. The passing of the last legal restriction on strikes, the 2017 Trade Union Act, saw the TUC organise a single lobby of Parliament, and little else. The tone of many delegates’ speeches was clearly defiant. Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “Real solidarity to push this back may take us outside the law […] It is better to break the law than break the poor.”

Turning that defiant tone into defiant action means the special congress must be the start of an ongoing campaign, not an opportunity for left bureaucrats to adopt a militant posture before returning to business-as-usual.

The resolution also includes a commitment to campaign for employers to refuse to issue work notices, as the Scottish Government has already done. Some Labour councils, such as Sheffield and Islington, have passed motions, some more strongly worded than others, opposing the law, without explicitly committing to refuse to enact it (even though it seems clear they could do so: Holyrood has faced no rebuke from Westminster for its stance).

Several Labour mayors and council leaders, including London’s Sadiq Khan, have signed a letter criticising the law. It says they will “explore every possible option to avert any prospect of work notices being issued in our areas.” Local and regional TUCs, along with individual unions, must organise local campaigns designed to solidify that “exploration” into explicit commitments not to issue work notices. 

Some other language in the resolution, however, is ducking-and-diving dressed up as “resistance”. For example, the commitment to “support affiliates in deploying novel and effective forms of industrial action to maximise resistance to work notices”. Exactly what “novel and effective” forms of action this might entail is not clear, but in any case, calling overtime bans (hardly novel) instead of strikes will not be “resistance to work notices”, but a retreat to an often less impactful form of action in order to “get round” them. This may be tactically necessary in some situations, but it should not be seen as an alternative to building for direct defiance.

The question of a national demonstration has also been fudged. The resolution commits the TUC to organising a national march in Cheltenham in late January, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the ban on trade unions at GCHQ. That will be positive, but it is not a substitute for what the original TUC congress resolution, and multiple individual unions’ own policies, call for: a national demonstration in London against all anti-strike laws. If, as now seems clear, the TUC will not call such a demonstration, a coalition of as many unions as possible should call it directly. Unions like RMT and FBU, which have been the most vocal on this issue, should take a lead.

Whilst the resolution commits to maintaining pressure on Labour nationally to honour its promise to repeal the law, and implement its New Deal for Working People, it is unfortunate the text did not go further and call for Labour to repeal all legal restrictions on the right to organise and strike. Given that successive TUC congresses, including the one which resolved to call the special congress, have called for this, for the special congress resolution to hold back from restating that demand, and to instead blandly praise Labour’s proposed New Deal as “ambitious”, is a significant watering-down.

The Tories passed the new law, which they initially floated in 2019, in response to the 2022-3 strike wave. Notwithstanding that wave, the labour movement remains in a weak condition. That weakness cannot be overcome at will. But if the better elements of the TUC’s resolution are to be more than warm words, they must lead to the empowering of local labour movement bodies to run campaigning in towns and cities that builds a real movement not only against the new legislation, but against all anti-strike laws. 

Source >> Free our unions

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