Voices: Unions have always fought for our rights – it’s time to defend theirs

The government has just announced a raft of new legislation that, if successfully passed, could spell the end of British trade unionism as we know it.

Our trade unions have fought for us throughout history, from the London dock strike of 1889 and the miners’ strike almost 100 years later, to the emergence of new unions for the gig economy such as IWGB. I believe it is now our duty to stand with them and resist this legislative attack.

In the past year, we have seen the largest series of industrial actions across numerous sectors in recent memory. And now, instead of taking the necessary and compassionate action to resolve the strikes, the government has effectively declared war on hard-fought workers’ rights and protections through the proposed introduction of minimum service laws.

The gravity of this situation cannot be understated, and all of us in the labour movement must form a protective ring around our trade unions in order to shield workers – millions of whom have been pushed to the breadline by government inaction on the cost of living crisis – from further harm.

What has sparked Rishi Sunak’s attack on workers? The answer is the continuation of decades of repressive neoliberalism and the preservation of elitism and an established order that tells its workforce that decent pay and working conditions are too good for it.

Cabinet Office papers published in 2013 under the “30-year rule” revealed Margaret Thatcher’s desire to “neglect no opportunity to erode trade union membership wherever this corresponds to the wishes of the workforce”. Whilst it is true that the number of people who are members of a trade union in the UK is far from the figures during her premiership, there is an unbreakable base that has paved the way for a resurgence in both union registration and public support.

This draconian legislation can be defeated and we can build a new and secure future for workers across all sectors in the weeks and months ahead – winning the pay rises and protections that millions desperately need.

At the Peace and Justice Project, we have launched a letter-writing tool that enables anyone to send an email to their MP in a matter of clicks. Thousands of letters have already been sent to MPs of all parties, regions and corners of the country via this tool, and it’s been supported by British acting legend Maxine Peake, comedian Francesca Martinez and rock band Enter Shikari. Unlike in the 1980s, there are new tools available for building support for workers on strike in our own communities, including Strike Map which shows the location of the nearest picket line.

Every single MP, regardless of their affiliations, must be held to account for their stance on this issue. Clear and present opposition from constituents can be a powerful force for change, and many of the most successful campaigns have been born from the grassroots up.

I’ve seen it myself in my hometown of Huntingdon, in suburban Cambridgeshire, which is traditionally a Tory heartland. This is a true blue stronghold where, until recent months, I could probably count the number of local picket lines there have been there in living memory on one hand.

But the tide is turning across the country. Every single picket line I’ve visited, from the CWU pickets at Huntingdon Delivery Office to those at ambulance depots across London and many more, there is visible and enthusiastic support from the public. The plight of the workers is felt and understood by the general population, as the cost of living crisis pushes our family, friends, neighbours and colleagues into food banks and financial hardship.

We must seize every opportunity to utilise public support for recent industrial action and expose tensions in the ruling Conservative Party, where many Tory MPs face the prospect of defeat at the next election. This means they will perhaps be more likely to listen to the concerns of their constituents.

RMT’s general secretary Mick Lynch has signalled his intent to challenge the legality of the proposed minimum service laws in court – paving the way for a potentially huge victory for the British trade union movement.

There’s an old saying in the trade union movement that seems pertinent – “the past we inherit, the future we build”. It’s about building a fair and dignified future for the generations to come. Our actions now will set a path for the future of workers’ rights and trade unionism in this country.

Samuel Sweek is a Labour councillor for Huntingdon North, and media and communications coordinator at the Peace and Justice Project