In the wake of strike activity in Britain not seen since the 1980s, the government is proposing draconian laws further restricting workers’ right to strike. RMT leader Mick Lynch says the laws are a threat not just to unions but to democracy in general.

Mick Lynch (second from left), general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers Union (RMT), stands on a picket line with union members outside Euston Station on January 3, 2023, in London, England. (Carl Court / Getty Images)

The year 2022 saw the greatest number of strike days in Britain since the early 1980s. This wave of resistance has inspired millions — but it has also led to a fierce backlash from the government. In addition to another round of austerity, their response now involves a new round of anti-union laws designed to impede the growing movement and prevent workers looking to industrial action as a solution to the cost-of-living crisis.

The proposed laws are draconian. Under the legislation, trade unions would have to ensure that a predefined “minimum service” was maintained throughout any strike, seriously limiting the impact of industrial action. In addition, it is proposed that named workers will be required to work by companies regardless of whether they wanted to strike or not. And, if trade unions do not encourage these workers to cross their own pickets during strikes, the unions could find themselves liable for all losses suffered by companies in the course of these actions.

In response to this historic threat to the trade union movement, Enough Is Enough has launched a “Defend the Right to Strike” campaign. Its aim is simple: to build the broadest possible coalition against the legislation and prevent its implementation by the Tory government. This will take the form of protests, rallies, pledges for the public, politicians, and businesses, and a mass strike solidarity movement that will ensure workers are not isolated when fighting for their rights.

We sat down with National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) general secretary Mick Lynch to discuss the legislation and its potentially dire consequences, not just for trade unions but for democracy as a whole.

Ronan Burtenshaw

The government’s new anti-trade union legislation seems designed to make picket lines impossible by mandating that workers can be named and forced to go into work whether they want to strike or not, with significant penalties for unions if they don’t comply. What’s your assessment of how big of a threat that is to organized labour in this country?

Mick Lynch

It looks like conscription, really. So, you can run a ballot, you can get your members behind you, and then the government and the companies can break that by directing a certain level of services have to be maintained. They reserve the right to name individuals who’ve got to go to work, regardless of their views on strike action.

That is a completely repressive set of legislation. It means that striking will probably become ineffective in many cases and that the worker as an individual has no right to strike. If they don’t cross pickets, they could be sacked. And it would be a lawful dismissal automatically. Any sort of dissent from that can lead to the union being fined God-knows-how-much money. They’ll probably work their way around to that detail. It is a huge challenge to effective trade unionism and a suppression of our human rights.

Ronan Burtenshaw

Staying with the financial point of view for a moment, that seems to be one of the ways in which this legislation could tear apart the trade union movement. It seems the government intends to make unions responsible for all losses incurred during strikes if they refuse to advocate their own members’ crossing picket lines. That is basically saying: if you want to conduct effective trade unionism, we will bankrupt you.

Mick Lynch

In the UK, as it stands, you don’t have the right to strike. You have the right to be exempt from legal proceedings for losses to businesses or individuals if you take strike action. Without that, companies could say, “Our staff didn’t come in this week; we’re suing the union.” Or an individual could say, “I’m suing you; I missed this meeting, I’ve got these losses.” We’ve been exempt from that since 1913, but there’s no right to strike as such. It’s a form of indemnity. They’re taking that away now, which is really historic. But they’re also taking away from the individual worker because the lawful ballot gives you the right to breach your contract of employment in line with the terms of the strike. It’s a huge attack on our rights in the workplace.

In the future, you won’t be able to have a lawful ballot unless you have a minimum-service-level agreement with an employer. That will make winning ballots extremely difficult. Trade unions could end up being a lobby group at best, saying, “Here’s a paper we put together about low pay,” or something similar. We’ve always been able to back up our proposals with the ability to take strike action. Even if you don’t take it, the ability to have it is often enough to give you a bit of power at the negotiating table. That will be removed. The employers will be laughing at us.

This is only the beginning too. You can be sure they will bring in more legislation. They want to start with the transport workers, particularly the RMT, to send a message and punish us. But once they’ve got that through and have shown they can work it, they will then open it out to everyone else.

Ronan Burtenshaw

It seems unlikely that they’d say, ‘transport workers can’t strike because people need to get to schools and hospitals, but nurses and teachers striking is fine.

Mick Lynch

Absolutely. I think it is by design. They were thinking about bringing in a raft of legislation, which may have been more difficult to pass and impacted a wider section of the economy. Now, they reckon it’s possible to make the RMT an enemy, get this legislation through, prove it works, use it in transport, and then move on to health, energy distribution, logistics, other strategically important sectors. You can imagine that it would be too good an opportunity for the Tories and the capitalists to resist. The RMT is an immediate target, but we’re also a test bed.

But they’ve got some problems with the legislation. If you want to open a railway system, for example, you’re going to have to open it completely, even if you want run a restricted service. So, people like signalers and those operating the electricity supply will have to work all of the time. They would have no right to strike at all. We can challenge that in court, as the Trades Union Congress (TUC) is suggesting. But ultimately, it’s going to have to be resisted on the streets, through campaigns like this and possibly through industrial action. The RMT can’t do that on its own. We need everyone else with us.

Ronan Burtenshaw

What sort of a campaign will we need to actually win this? Another happy-clappy left-wing affair that unites our own base but doesn’t move the working class isn’t going to cut it, is it?

Mick Lynch

It needs the whole working class, you’re right, and it needs to be broad. It needs to get the mainstream of the Labour Party onboard. They need to be saying, “I identify with this.” They need to be making calls for the legislation to be stopped or, if needs be, repealed. And they need to support us on the picket lines, which they have not been doing.

Any campaign to do that has to bring in a wide range of groups. It needs the churches, the mosques, the gurdwaras; it needs all the religious groups. It needs civil society and all the other campaigning groups, from environmentalists to human rights organizations. It needs to be able to make this an issue for more than committed trade unionists. We need to say, “This is about our rights.” It is about our rights at work, our rights in society, and the right to protest. The right to withdraw your labor is a fundamental civil liberty. It is as fundamental as the right to free expression or the right to protest.

If we can’t resist this, I fear for our rights in all of these areas. I fear for our future as a working class but also as citizens of society. We will live in a society where freedoms and rights are severely restricted.

Ronan Burtenshaw

That sounds a bit like the labor movement going back to its roots with the Chartists and the struggle for democracy. In recent decades, it has seemed like the Right has had a monopoly on concepts like freedom and liberty. Is it time that trade unions pick up those weapons that we have allowed to rust over the years?

Mick Lynch

Yes. Democracy has decayed in this country. We have left it to a professional class, and that has been to our detriment. The labor movement came from campaigns for democracy. Its pioneers believed in universal suffrage before everyone else, before the middle class got hold of it. The People’s Charter argued for a recallable parliament, the secret vote, the broadening of the franchise, and all of that. Maybe that stuff has passed its time, but the principle is that working people are the defenders of democratic rights and always have been. Ordinary people must have a right to make meaningful decisions in their workplace, their communities, and society. That wasn’t given to us.

This also means reinvigorating the councils, regional governments, and local institutions that have lost their power. Because they don’t have the right to levy tax properly, they don’t have the right to distribute wealth properly, because it’s all restricted by central government. So, we need real democratic devolution inside England, Wales, and Scotland as well as everywhere else. This is about more than just pay and conditions: it’s about your right as a citizen to exercise your democratic voice in more ways than just once every few years at a ballot box. That is what trade unions are all about, the broadening of democracy into workplaces and communities. That’s why we’re a threat.

Ronan Burtenshaw

Trade unions are at the front of a wave of resistance at the moment: the biggest set of votes for strike action since the 1980s, a huge cost-of-living crisis with a two-year recession coming down the line, a hugely unpopular government introducing austerity and widespread attacks on democracy. In one sense, it’s a positive that unions are at the front of the fightback, and that was the aim of the Enough Is Enough campaign. But people are also looking to trade unions for leadership now. Are they up to it?

Mick Lynch

I think the trade union movement is up to its bit of it. It has certainly been reinvigorated. There’s new leadership at all levels, not just the general secretaries. There is renewed energy at the workplace level, at local and regional levels. It’s a positive, and we see that in the ballot results. But these are only one part of a much larger battle.

The trade unions are reinvigorating themselves, but we now need the political side, the cultural side, and all the rest of it to follow suit. These politicians that we elect cannot just be observers saying, ‘That’s an interesting phenomenon.’ They’ve got to be part of the wave; they’ve got to be part of the recovery. That doesn’t mean we all have to agree with each other. The Labour Party has to sort out its own agenda. But Keir Starmer and the leadership will have to show that they identify with this growing movement for change and that they understand our demands over things like pay rises, food poverty, housing, and taxing those at the top.

Unions have got to make the politicians come toward us and speak to what we believe in. That means winning campaigns, like the one we’re discussing. It means winning on pay and conditions. But it also means winning the argument about democracy and the future of our society.

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