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Interview 'Build a mass movement to defeat the Tory attacks on strike rights'

FBU general secretary and TUC president MATT WRACK tells Ben Chacko how he sees resistance developing as the first Special TUC Congress since the 1980s meets

THIS weekend’s special TUC Congress — the first since the early 1980s — has been called to address the most draconian anti-strike legislation yet.

Fire Brigades Union Matt Wrack, who as TUC president this year has played a key role in organising this Congress, doesn’t underestimate the challenge facing unions.

The government’s Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act could effectively ban strike action across whole sectors, with ministers defining “minimum service levels” that require everyone to work — in a recent strike in Sao Paulo, a labour court instructed rail workers to run 100 per cent of services at peak times and 80 per cent at other times.

“On the levels [of service government is recommending during strikes] we haven’t seen ours yet in the fire service. I’m guessing they’ve got some technical difficulties on how you define it in a fire service with already fragmented standards.

“But I’m guessing they will be very high, and in some cases it probably will be 100 per cent. For example in the control centres where they take the calls, where the staffing levels are so low and you may be running with only two people anyway — you can’t run it with any less than that.

“So in some parts of the fire service it will be 100 per cent, which obviously is completely taking away the right to strike. That’s how draconian this is.

“And I think it’s entirely likely this will be spread to other sectors. I’m completely opposed to those who say we can just wait for a Labour government to repeal it — we need to fight it.”

But that skeleton-crew fire service Wrack has just depicted points to the great irony of a Tory government claiming strikes are disrupting minimum service levels, when its cuts have left essential services struggling to maintain a service on non-strike days.

“Yes, and a lot of unions make this point. It’s a bit rich for the government to talk about minimum services when they’ve destroyed public services for 13 years. Public services are on their knees.

“So we should turn that back on them — use this to make the case for investment in public services, particularly as we come up to an election, and that also puts the focus on Labour, if they come in.

“We’re facing problems there with Labour’s determination not to make spending commitments. We need to challenge that.”

Wrack is clear that defeating this legislation is up to unions, not the Labour Party. “A Labour government will only act if it’s under pressure to act.”

Unions will need to hold Labour to its pledge to repeal this legislation within 100 days, “and beyond that, we need it to go much, much further. This should be a real turning point for workers’ rights.”

He is deeply unimpressed with Keir Starmer’s messaging this week. “My message to him would be — don’t turn up and start praising Thatcher.

“That’s a red rag to a bull. An insult to working-class communities all across the country, who came under vicious attack from Thatcher.

“Secondly, waiting for Tory failure isn’t a great strategy. We need positive pledges, offers of hope. We don’t see enough of that at all.”

If it’s up to unions to beat the new laws, can the movement look to its history? Employment law experts Lord John Hendy KC and Professor Keith Ewing, as well as historian Professor John Foster, have pointed to the way the Industrial Relations Act of the 1970s was broken through pressure from the grassroots, with the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions and a surge in unofficial, technically illegal strikes. Is that what we need to be looking at again?

“I think we need to build a movement that is prepared to take that kind of action.

“The legislation is partly about controlling all of this, including unofficial strikes. But if we’re going to do that then the type of movement that existed then needs to be rebuilt, particularly around the development of the shop stewards’ movement.

“It’s not just a question of the law, or the total number of union members in the country, it’s about organisation in workplaces. We need to use this as an opportunity to rebuild that — which is a big, big task, I don’t underestimate how difficult that is.”

But have unions made progress towards it already in the last 18 months? The strike wave may have been provoked by an inflationary “cost of profits” crisis, but successes have rested on unions building strike-ready workplaces and the repeated beating of ballot thresholds show an engaged and committed rank and file.

“I think that has helped. People can see a link between taking action and their own pay and conditions, and how you resist the cost-of-living crisis. So that is a very welcome development over the past year, but it’s still not at the level it was in the 1970s or ’80s at all.”

There’s a lot of talk of resisting the Act through non-compliance — but another key factor in successfully maintained strikes this year has been unions building up the funds to keep striking, and the threat of assets being sequestrated if they break the new laws could put that at risk?

“We’ve got different traditions on that, in our union we’ve never had strike pay though we have a hardship fund.

“But the threat of sequestration is real. Some people have said I’m gung ho about it, I’m not at all. Nobody wants to see unions sequestrated, and it would be foolish to risk that unnecessarily.

“The key thing is to build a mass movement. What happens then follows from building the mass movement. 

“Non-compliance can take various forms. I found some people were dismissive of the very idea. 

“And then the Scottish TUC comes in, and wins a commitment from the Scottish government not to issue work notices — that is a form of non-compliance. Yes, it’s from a government.

“But it’s because of the political dynamics we created in Scotland that it is forced to do that, and we need to build that pressure on mayors, on local authorities across England, on fire authorities et cetera... 

“If more and more of them say they won’t implement it, that creates more and more problems for business [in doing so]. And the more determined our movement is, the more that pressure will grow.”

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