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View: This is why we must Free Our Unions

By Daniel Randall, RMT Rep and co-organiser of Free Our Unions. This is a transcript of a speech given by Randall at a meeting of the Green Party Trade Union Group on 20th August 2021. This transcript was first published on the Free Our Unions website.

My name’s Daniel Randall, I’m a railway worker and a rep for the RMT union. I’m speaking here as a co-organiser of Free Our Unions. Thanks very much for the invite, I’m looking forward to this discussion.

I’ll start by giving a quick introduction to what Free Our Unions is and what we do, for those that may not have heard of us. We’re a grassroots labour movement campaign against anti-union and anti-strike legislation, that exists to raise awareness of how such legislation makes our lives as workers worse. We organise information campaigns, public events, and direct action, and our supporters are active inside their own unions fighting for those unions to adopt a radical approach to these issues. We’re supported by four trade unions at national level – FBU, RMT, PCS, and IWGB – and dozens of local union branches and committees, as well as some Labour Party organisations.

Free Our Unions organises on a very open basis, via open organising meetings. We produce regular briefings and materials for supporters to use in their workplaces and communities. We don’t want that to be a passive relationship, whereby passive supporters dutifully hand out materials produced by some distant centre, but an active one, whereby supporters themselves are producing materials explaining the relevance of anti-union laws to the spheres of activity they’re involved in. If you want to stay in touch with our campaign on an individual level, there’s a contact form you can fill in on our website.

The Green Party TU Group has already taken a strong stance, in policy terms, against anti-union and anti-strike legislation, so I’m fairly confident I don’t have to spend any time convincing you that it’s necessary to oppose them.

Nevertheless, as trade unionists who organise on a day-to-day basis within the constraints these laws impose on us, including their deadening effecting on consciousness, it can be useful to take a step back and think about the issue in context, in order that we can strengthen the foundations of our opposition. So what I’d like to do with this talk – and I don’t intend to speak for more than 15 minutes – is give a bit of background in terms of how we in Free Our Unions approach the issues, and then talk about why I think there are particular possibilities for collaboration between our campaign and yourselves as Green trade unionists, that I hope we can explore.

As I’m sure many of you know, Britain has what Tony Blair once, proudly, called “the most restrictive union laws in the western world.” How unions organise, when and how we can take industrial action, and over what issues, are all severely restricted by this legislative regime. Any worker aged around 45 or under has spent more or less their entire working life under it. The laws which most constrain us today began to be introduced under Thatcher, and were progressively added throughout the subsequent decades of Tory rule and, disgracefully, were left entirely intact by 13 years of Labour government.

The constraints of these laws seem so solid that it often feels somewhat fantastical to imagine things could ever be any different. The idea, for example, that workers could get together in the staff room or canteen, take a vote there and then to strike, and walk out the door – and for that to be perfectly legal and legitimate – seems unimaginable to many…

…to such an extent that well-meaning figures in our own movement recoil from the ostensible radicalism of demanding the restoration of such rights, and feel it necessary to cringingly preface their comments about anti-union laws with assurances that “no-one wants to go back to the bad old days of the 1970s.”

There was indeed much about the 1970s that was bad – both in general, and in terms of the trade union movement as it was then (or so I’m told: I wasn’t there personally). But we should make no apology for aspiring to least the levels of legislative freedom and social power that organised labour had then – and in fact much greater levels.

That contraction of horizons also leads to a tendency to think of anti-union laws really only in terms of the most recent – the 2016 Trade Union Act, which included the imposition of turnout thresholds in industrial action ballots. But that law is only one facet of the legislative restrictions on our rights to organise and take action, and in many ways not the worst. So a big focus of our work in Free Our Unions has been to try and resist, and push back against, that ideological retreat to only talking about the most recent anti-union laws, and maintain a perspective of confronting the older laws – the laws which prohibit workplace balloting, which prohibit striking in solidarity with other workers, and which prohibit striking over political issues.

It’s an important moment for the labour movement to step up our campaign against these laws now because this legislative regime is set to get worse. I’m sure you’ve all heard of the Police Bill; that bill will restrict yet further our rights to protest and dissent. Free Our Unions has published an extensive briefing examining the effect the bill will have on unions and workplace organising, which you can read on our website,

Beyond this, the Tories also have a manifesto commitment to implement so-called “minimum service requirements” during transport strikes, something that will obviously directly affect me and my workmates, and you and yours if you work in the transport industry. It’s not yet clear exactly how they envisage the system working here, but in other countries with similar laws, they often involve transport unions designating a section of their membership as exempt from striking so those workers can provide the legally-stipulated “minimum service”, meaning unions essentially have to facilitate scabbing. The political aim here is very clear: to minimise the impact of strikes, and essentially reduce them to the status of a protest rather than a leveraging of workers’ power.

We don’t know what the timescale for the implementation of the new law is yet. Government priorities have obviously been recalibrated by the pandemic, but this is something the government is still committed to and could decide to bring forward at any time. If these new laws are passed, they won’t stop with transport workers. The government already has a list of “essential services” which are subject to additional restrictions under the 2016 Trade Union Act, which includes education, healthcare, and the fire service. If they impose “minimum service requirements” on transport workers, I have no doubt those sectors will be next.

I want to talk now about some specific points of convergence between the fight against anti-union laws and your potential political priorities as Green trade unionists. In the interests of full disclosure, I myself am a Labour Party member and a supporter of the revolutionary socialist group Workers’ Liberty. But, although some of our activity historically has been oriented to policy issues within Labour, Free Our Unions isn’t a solely Labour-focused campaign.

The first point of convergence I want to suggest is around the question of democracy. I know the Green Party is strongly committed to democratic reform; I would argue that restrictions on the right to strike are one of the most significant brakes on meaningful democratic action in Britain today, and that repealing anti-union and anti-strike laws would represent as meaningful an expansion of democracy as reforming the electoral system.

Without a full right to strike, we’re essentially subject to the dictatorship of the boss. Democracy ends as soon as we set foot in the workplace. In a context in which our hard-right, nationalist government is proposing legislation to restrict the right to protest, to further restrict workers’ rights to organise and strike, gerrymandering constituency boundaries, and more, I think you have to say that this adds up to a serious assault on democracy. The first mass workers’ movement in this country, Chartism, was a movement for democracy, a movement against the dictatorship of the rich. The contemporary labour movement needs to reclaim some of that spirit today, and I think you, as members of a party strongly committed to an expansion of democracy, could help to leaven that by making campaigning against anti-union laws a strategic priority.

The second point of convergence is around the obviously central question of climate change. As I’m sure many of you know, the origin of the term “green” as a political label lies in a trade union struggle – the “Green Bans” movement of Australian construction workers in the 1970s, who leveraged their class power, their power over production, to shut down environmentally and socially destructive construction projects. If you’re not familiar with this episode I strongly urge you to learn about it; in my view it is one of the world-historic high-points of rank-and-file-led trade unionism that was both politically and industrially radical. So, if only in a nominative sense, the Green tradition is linked to a class-based, workplace-based, union-based struggle.

We desperately need a new “Green Bans” movement today. We need workers to have the freedom to strike not only over narrow economic issues – so-called “official trade disputes” – but over political issues, so that they could leverage their class power to demand radical climate action from the government. We need the freedom to strike in solidarity with others, including with youth climate strikers. And workers in high-emissions industries need to the freedom to strike to demand transition and conversion, recapturing the spirit of the Lucas Aerospace workers who, in the 1970s, developed a plan to repurpose their employer’s productive capacity away from making military hardware in order to make medical equipment and renewable energy technology. I imagine that the statement “climate change is caused by capitalism” is uncontroversial in this room; if that’s the case, and if we see the working class as a key anti-capitalist actor – the key anti-capitalist actor, I would argue – then we are impelled to confront the legal shackles the capitalist state has placed on us, in order to protect itself.

Free Our Unions is currently supporting Earth Strike, a network of anti-capitalist activists that emerged from the climate strike movement, in a new initiative called “Empower the Unions”. This initiative aims to connect trade unionists and climate activists, drawing on traditions of working-class direct action for the environment, such as the Green Bans movement, the Lucas Plan, and more recent struggles like the occupation of the Vestas wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight in 2009, in order to highlighting how anti-union laws inhibit such action today. That’s one specific area of activity in which I’d invite Green Party trade unionists to work alongside us.

The formal political situation in this country is very bleak, and I’m sure none of us expect, on any kind of short or medium-term timescale, the election of a government likely to repeal these laws. I think it will be a social imperative to break and defy these laws much sooner than we have any prospect of seeing them repealed. In fact, I believe that’s already the case. But I also believe that continually highlighting these laws, raising consciousness around them, and explaining their essential nature as statutory weapons of class warfare in the hands of the bosses and their state, which menace the future of the planet as well as constraining our democratic rights, and demanding their abolition – even when that demand isn’t immediately likely to be won… these are all essential parts of the means by which our movement can develop the confidence to defy the laws.

That, ultimately, is what Free Our Unions exists to do, and if you agree with the perspective I’ve sketched out today, I hope we can discuss how we might work together to advance it.