The Government’s newest anti-strike laws, introduced by the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act, threaten striking frontline workers with the sack and trade unions that fail to comply with being sued into bankruptcy. 

The laws have faced a barrage of criticism from civil liberties organisations, NHS employers, race equality groups, employment lawyers and, of course, the trade union movement. Mass protests have been held and legal action is on the cards. But unions like the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport workers (RMT) and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) are calling for the trade union movement to go further: a campaign of mass defiance to defeat this legislation.  

Today, the unions are putting forward a motion at Trade Union Congress (TUC), widely expected to pass, calling on the TUC to build a mass opposition to Minimum Service Levels Act, up to and including a strategy of non-compliance and non-cooperation to make the ant-strike laws unworkable, including industrial action. 

RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch and FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack sit down with Tribune to discuss why this campaign is so important and why it matters for the future of the trade union movement. 

Taj Ali

Mick Lynch, how will the minimum service levels laws affect your members? 

Mick Lynch

It’s important to our members because many sections of our industry will be banned completely. You can’t run the infrastructure of the railway without having it run completely. In the disputes that we had with Network Rail and the train operating companies, there was a complete closedown on many occasions. That’s because it’s a system, and systems have to run. They either run or they don’t run. It’s very hard to partially close down something. And if you want to run a signalling system from here to Scotland or out to Anglia or down to Cornwall, you’re gonna have to open up the whole system. So those members in control rooms and in signalling centres will have to work even if they want to run a partial service.

The Government haven’t described what kind of service they’d want to run if the RMT takes industrial action. What constitutes a minimum service level is at the Government’s discretion. It will mean that, in effect, many of our people are completely banned from striking.   

Taj Ali

And Matt Wrack, as General Secretary of the FBU, you’ve been very vocal on this. You’ve called for a campaign of defiance. This legislation is going to have a significant impact on firefighters in particular, isn’t it?

Matt Wrack

Yes, we have similar problems to those Mick has just outlined. We’ve had a meeting with the Home Office. We don’t know what their minimum service level would be in the fire service, but they accepted in that discussion that in some cases, it would mean them telling everyone that they have to come into work.  It is a fundamental attack. The debate this week is crucial to what we do next. It’s about building a campaign. We’re not there yet.

Taj Ali

We’ve had protests, talk of legal action. Why is a campaign of defiance important to you?

Matt Wrack

We’ve got a particular concern about legal action. We are worried in terms of our own industry and where that would lead. Clearly, we should challenge the Government legally, if necessary. But we’re not convinced that would assist us and possibly anyone else. We want no backsliding from Labour. And it’s welcome that they’ll repeal the Act and the 2016 Trade Union Act within 100 days. But they will come under a lot of pressure when it comes to the election to backtrack on that. And we want to make sure that this Congress and unions prevent that from happening. And then we also have to prepare for what happens if unions come into conflict with this law. People might end up being sacked. 

Taj Ali

If the Government attempts to enforce these new laws, how are you going to manage that? You’re going to have to think in a very different way in terms of how you conduct industrial action.

Matt Wrack

I don’t think we’ve got the answers to that yet. We’re not just wanting stunts and so on at Congress. You’ve got to think carefully about what this means and how you take it on. I think the importance of the composites is that it’s saying that we don’t just go along with what the Government has done. When we look at the history of anti-union laws, we’ve complied with all of them, and it just sets us up for the next one. This will not be the end of it. There will be further attacks if we go along with it and accept this. 

Taj Ali

Mick Lynch, yesterday at a fringe event, you hinted at some unions perhaps being too passive in the midst of this legislation. Unions who would support a protest against it and a legal challenge but are unwilling to say they will defy this legislation.

I think there’ll be a temptation for some unions that are not immediately in the firing line to say, ‘Well, it’s not our problem, so we’re not getting involved.’ That will be a real temptation. And it will be a temptation for the TUC as a whole. Relying on the International Labour Organisation (ILO) is not going to make this legislation go away. We’ve been outside compliance of ILO standards for four decades. 

When you go to court, it doesn’t mean the law is withdrawn. It means that governments learn how to comply with the law. Legal action can be part of the trade union’s toolbox, but unfortunately, it has always been used against us until now. We’ve had to learn how to comply with legislation. Industrial action now is completely different to the way it was in the 1980s. People used to walk out the door often. Members didn’t even have to wait for their executive committee or the national union to endorse it — they used to be able to get on with it. Things have changed a lot since then. If this law makes it so that people can’t go on strike, this movement will die. We can’t start from the basis that we’re just going to accept it. 

Taj Ali

In the 1970s, when the Government passed the Industrial Relations Act, trade unions called unofficial action and defied the law. Trade unions today are a lot more cautious about things like that. Mick, you spoke yesterday at the Institute for Employment Rights fringe about how the history of the trade union movement has always been defiance. 

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