STUC report: How can unions maximise wins from Britain’s next government?

Morning Star editor Ben Chacko reports from two vital Scottish TUC fringe meetings

19 Apr 2024| News

How to maximise working-class wins from a likely Labour government at British level?

The question dominated two packed fringe meetings at the Scottish TUC — the Trade Union Co-ordinating Group’s Workers’ Rights after the General Election, and the joint Morning Star – Institute of Employment Rights (IER) meeting, Reclaim Our Rights, Rebuild Our Services.

Speakers painted a picture of devastation inflicted on communities by successive governments.

The Fire Brigades Union’s Colin Brown pointed to epidemic levels of violence in “our schools, our transport systems and on our streets” because “the social fabric of our society has been ripped out from underneath us,” with even firefighters trying to save lives now sometimes victims of anti-social violence. Devastating council cuts threaten a new wave of destruction of jobs and services, the NHS is on its knees, the condition of our water supply network and postal service are national scandals.

But Brown noted that on the face of it Labour has “no vision” to tackle any of these issues:

“We’re constantly told there is no money to fix the building crisis … no money to remove flammable cladding. No money to nationalise mail or water.”

He contrasted this to the Labour-Tory consensus that more money can be spent on arms, and even on supporting the war on Gaza by a state charged with genocide at the International Court of Justice.

Unions, even affiliated unions, should not let Labour take them for granted, he argued, saying politicians should be aware that “if they won’t stand on a platform of fair pay, we won’t back them. If they won’t stand on a platform of investment in public services, we won’t back them.”

The bakers’ union’s Sarah Woolley said unions would be unlikely to win rights to secure work, an end to age discrimination on pay, improved social security such as higher statutory sick pay unless the labour movement starts growing.

“We’ve got to organise, significantly grow our movement and our power, organising the millions of unorganised workers.” She pointed to initiatives like Organise Now and community-based organisations such as the Ron Todd Foundation, stressing the need for outreach beyond unions’ existing ranks and for a focus on movement-building rather than being “distracted by political personalities.”

RMT leader Mick Lynch focused on the need for pressure on an incoming government.

RMT is not a Labour affiliate, and is not taking a blanket pro-Labour position at the election, having announced it would back Jeremy Corbyn should he stand as an independent in Islington North as well as support for North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll (who will be addressing another public Morning Star meeting, in Newcastle, on the direction of the labour movement and Labour Party this evening).

But Lynch stressed the need to deal with the government likely to be elected, ensure it delivers on the commitments it has made in the New Deal for Workers and press it to go further.

Powerful figures like Peter Mandelson are working hard to undermine the New Deal, and Lynch said those Labour MPs determined to deliver it need the left’s support.

“Angela Rayner is saying on every platform she goes on that we are going to deliver the whole new deal, and I’ve seen her do it in front of [Keir] Starmer deliberately.

We shouldn’t decry what that would achieve and make the perfect the enemy of the reasonable. Labour keeps saying in the first 100 days it is going to bring in significant improvements to workers’ rights — their right to go to tribunal, their right not to be discriminated against for all sorts of reasons, increased and improved collective rights.”

Starmer will attempt to appease business — “the business lobby is already in there … if there’s a Labour conference before the election it will be flooded with business people, banks, multinationals … everybody will be there trying to water down this Bill.”

It will matter to unions who has the employment brief after the election, and the left should be alert to the ongoing public attempts to undermine Rayner, he said:

“We will have to support Rayner whether or not you like her on everything … they’re already after her, you see it every day, she’s too working class and too left-wing and she wants to get some things done on behalf of working people.

The people undermining her are in the Labour Party, Mandelson is going round what used to be Fleet Street trying to undermine this Bill and we will have to prop her up.”

IER director James Harrison pointed to the ties between anti-union legislation and the stifling impact on democracy of Tory policing laws such as the Public Order Act, noting that Labour is not planning to repeal those and the campaign to do so will need to come from below.

“The Government’s now infamous Strikes Minimum Service Levels Act, which is designed to force unions to break their own strikes, has yet to truly come down to bite. They are still getting their pieces in place, with regulations now having been published for ambulance, transport, border agency and the fire service, with the health service regulations expected next, and education regulations to follow. As we all know, the Act, as it stands, is not something unions can adjust to, as we have with previous anti-union legislation, as it’s designed to be an existential threat to trade unions, either through fines and sequestration of assets – if it’s resisted, or through membership attrition if we comply.”


“No matter who gets elected, we’ll need to double down on our efforts, and dig deep as a labour movement, in order to defend and advance our rights once more because sometimes, history needs a push!”

PCS general secretary Fran Heathcote argued that of all demands to be made of a Labour government “the most important one for our movement is to restore the right to strike.”

Starmer had never bothered to meet her predecessor Mark Serwotka, she noted, and she was pressing for a meeting with him now. “It’s critical we apply maximum pressure on a Labour government.” Part of that would undoubtedly be through industrial action, unless Labour changes its tune on public-sector pay: “I think we’re now seeing a further strike wave building on what happened last year.”

The restoration of strike rights was a key priority for Education Institute of Scotland Andrea Bradley too:

“The right to withdraw our labour is an industrial tool that we simply cannot be without — we might as well throw in the towel completely if we were to surrender that right.”

She praised the hard work by left unions to secure last December’s TUC emergency congress agreement which “amounted to non-compliance” with the anti-strike minimum service levels Act and the importance of maintaining unified resistance across unions to any attempt to deploy the law.

Unite Scotland regional secretary Derek Thomson called for a devolution of employment law to Scotland, arguing that unions could use the devolution of power to “push forward a progressive system” and set a tone that would strengthen the struggle for workers’ rights across the rest of Britain.

Scotland was currently a “zero-hours hot spot” with 102,000 workers having no set working hours, at 3.8 per cent of the workforce higher than the British average, but the political will to ban them and the ability of unions to influence policy was stronger north of the border.

“It’s sometimes said that the SNP just need to take one step to the left to get votes — we need to be pushing Labour to take that step to the left,” he argued, saying Unite had had useful discussions with Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar on the subject.

Few in the labour movement have illusions about the right-wing character of the Starmer regime in Labour, but it was clear across the meetings that electoral challenges to Labour from the left are not seen as likely to succeed on any significant scale.

The focus was therefore less on how people should vote at election time than on how unions confront the likely reality of a Labour government within the next year. And on investment in services and winning back workers’ rights, confrontation will have to be the order of the day.