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WE live in a time of neoliberalism that has turned deeply authoritarian. Those who have power aim to protect it by removing every democratic check upon them. They do this through measures that are legal in form but profoundly undemocratic in content. They want freedom for themselves and coercion for others.
As a result, rights to assembly, freedom of speech, and freedom from surveillance have all been put at risk. And governments have searched in ever more ingenious ways to strip the right to strike of any real meaning.
In the process, they are willing to rip up the agreements of the past: ILO conventions and the European Convention on Human Rights are seen as relics from another age, impediments to the right’s will to power.
The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act is the latest twist in a history of de-democratisation that has been going on since the 1980s. In narrow and formal terms it does not remove the right to strike.
But the reality is very different. In education, for instance, its implementation would mean that three in four of primary teachers would not be allowed to strike. On pain of penalty, unions would become the enforcers of strike-breaking, required to encourage their members to enter the workplace, driving past their striking colleagues at the gates.
This is intolerable, and to allow the Act’s smooth implementation would be both an act of self-harm — for what would be the point of unions if we adopted the role that the government wants us to take — and a betrayal of the democratic principles for which the labour movement has fought since its founding moment.
We will fight now. We will fight legally, to challenge this latest assault on workers’ rights. We will fight politically, demanding all parties commit unequivocally in their election manifestos to revoking the legislation. We will demand of employers that they do not use the discretion the Act gives them to impose minimum service levels on their workers: they should not issue “work notices.”
Above all, we will fight, through mobilising our members. My executive has made its position clear. Any school group taking action will receive the full backing of the NEU in resisting minimum service levels and opposing any victimisation.
Should my union receive a work notice we will take steps to defend our right to take industrial action without government and employer interference.
Saturday’s Special Congress of the TUC is vital, and my union will be contributing fully to its debates. We will be calling on the TUC to implement in full the decisions made at the September Congress — including a mass trade union demonstration and 100 per cent support for any union attacked.
We will be calling on Labour to move urgently in government in fulfilling the commitments it has made to immediate repeal of the Act; this should be part of a bonfire of anti-union legislation. Unions penalised by the legislation may well face crippling fines; individual workers may well face dismissal. Labour must pledge to repay financial penalties and restore workers to their jobs.
The phrase “existential crisis” is often overused. But in the present situation, it is completely apposite. Our basic identity and effectiveness are being called into question. We must rise in action, as a cohesive and collective movement, with a response that fully matches the severity of the challenge.
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