Resist Tory attacks on trade unions!

The call for free trade unions is an essential part of resistance to the Tory government and against austerity, writes Ken Livingstone

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Pentonville Five — dockers from east London who were jailed in 1972 for their part in defying the anti-union laws introduced by the Conservative then government of Edward Heath.

The five were freed by the mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of workers who struck and demonstrated in their support and the subsequent threat by the TUC to call a general strike if the five were not released. Faced with such a broad array of forces the government backed down and the five were freed.

Today we’re in different days and with different customs — but at heart Conservatives don’t fundamentally change. In between partying and extravagantly redecorating the flat at No 10, Boris Johnson did manage to do a small amount of work in his time as prime minister.

In the dying days of his premiership his increasingly sclerotic government changed the law on trade union rights in two ways — needless to say for the worse.

First, by allowing an employer faced with a striking workforce to bring in agency labour to break the strike. Second, the amount of statutory damages a union could be forced to pay to an employer for supporting their striking members was significantly increased, up to £1 million.

Rogue employers have not been slow to take advantage of these gifts from Johnson. Two examples of using agency labour to break a strike have come to light already, both in the education sector and both in London.

It goes without saying that under my mayoralty we would have been intervening as much as we could to stop this labour abuse.

In October, 10 support staff at Drapers Pyrgo primary school in Romford went on strike against pay cuts — not for a pay rise — some workers on an annual salary of just £15,000 could face losing £100 a month. The school used agency labour to cover the strike days when staff were not at work.

We should note that the 12 members of the management team of the Drapers multi-academy trust paid themselves a total of £1,488,140 in 2020/21, an increase from the previous year’s £1,213,373 — a pay rise of over 20 per cent.

Not only did the school management resort to using the draconian Tory laws, but they misled the agency that was to supply the replacement workers by advising that it was to cover sickness and failing to mention that it was to break a strike. Misleading an agency in these circumstances is still against the law.

On being advised by the National Education Union (NEU) of the true position, the first agency approached by the school quite honourably refused to supply the labour but unfortunately a second did, although it says that it will not in future.

The second case involved that hardy perennial in disputes over outsourcing its workforce, University College London (UCL). The outsourced security guards at UCL have been striking to bring their pay up to a level equivalent to that before outsourcing; they need an increase of between £2 and £3 to bring them up to £15 an hour.

Earlier this month it appears that the UCL subcontractor had drafted in agency labour to break the strike. The union for academic staff, the University & College Union (UCU), has intervened with the college management to support the strikers by raising questions about the use of agency labour as strike-breakers.

Clearly, given the chance that the law now allows, disreputable employers will procure strike-breaking labour from rogue agencies prepared to cross the line set out by their association, the Recruitment & Employment Confederation, in not welcoming this change to the law.

Although only in office for the shortest time on record, Liz Truss may have set in train a further change to the law that will be even more damaging.

Last month her government published the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill that will place an obligation on employers and transport unions that are in dispute to negotiate a minimum service agreement, meaning the union will need to ensure that sufficient of its members are at work to provide a minimum service.

If the union refuses to negotiate the undermining of its own strike it is proposed that the Central Arbitration Committee may intervene and impose a minimum service determination on the union. Further, it is also proposed that the Employment Appeal Tribunal may impose a fine on a union for non-compliance.

Workers who refuse to go along with a minimum service agreement would lose any protection against unfair dismissal if they decline to attend their place of work.

It is not clear which transport operations would be covered by this new law, but certainly many on my old beat of Greater London; those designated may include London’s buses, passenger rail transport, civil air traffic control, airport security and seaport security. It takes no stretch of imagination to see that this list could soon be expanded to cover most, if not all, essential services.

This new batch of laws must be added to those introduced under David Cameron and Theresa May, particularly the 2016 Trade Union Act.

Further, we must not lose sight of the fact that these two batches must also be linked to the many anti-union laws introduced during the time that Margaret Thatcher and John Major were in office.

The Labour Party has committed, when in office, to repeal the new laws and the 2016 Act but more is certainly necessary.

To ensure that our unions can function and properly represent their members, especially through collective bargaining, we need a repeal of all of the anti-union laws that go back as far as 1980.

Repeal of these laws and the call for free trade unions is an essential part of resistance to the Tory government and against austerity.

The Campaign for Trade Union Freedom, in association with the Institute of Employment Rights, is holding a major conference on December 3 to mobilise for campaigning for free trade unions. I would encourage all shop stewards, union reps and labour movement activists to attend.

Ken Livingstone was mayor of London from 2000 until 2008. You can follow Ken at and

Conference: From Pentonville to P&O: Union Rights & Tory Wrongs — Campaigning for Free Trade Unions.

With: Frances O’Grady, TUC; Dave Ward, CWU; Kevin Courtney, NEU; Jo Grady, UCU; Mark Serwotka, PCS; Mick Lynch, RMT; Mick Whelan, Aslef; Barry Gardiner MP; John McDonnell MP; Professor Keith Ewing; Lord John Hendy KC; Ben Chacko, Morning Star; Matt Foot, lawyer and writer; Andy Green, CTUF & Unite EC; Nabeela Mowlana, Young Labour; Laura Pidcock, People’s Assembly; & more, including workers in dispute. Chairs: Tony Burke, Unite/CSEU & Sarah Woolley, BFAWU.

Hosted by the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom. Supported by the Institute of Employment Rights.

Registration and further details can be found here:

This blog first appeared in the Morning Star

This entry was posted in Campaign For Trade Union Freedom News, European Employment Rights, International Employment Rights, UK Employment Rights, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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