Lawmakers from the United Kingdom's Conservative Party advanced anti-strike legislation on Monday night despite the objections of tens of thousands of petitioners and thousands of demonstrators outside, but economic justice advocates made clear that the fight for fundamental workers' rights is far from over.
"After last night, the choice is clear," the Enough Is Enough campaign against neoliberalism tweeted Tuesday morning. "You're either with nurses, teachers, firefighters, and frontline workers. Or you're with the Tory government. It's time for everyone to pick a side."
Thousands of trade unionists and progressive activists gathered in London on Monday night to protest the Tories' so-called Strikes Bill as it was being read for a second time in the Palace of Westminster.
"This bill is really about... weakening the power of workers."
If finalized, the legislation would allow right-wing British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's administration to impose undisclosed "minimum service regulations" to force striking nurses, teachers, firefighters, rail staff, and others back to work. If they refuse, workers can be terminated, even during a labor stoppage to prevent pay cuts, and the union can be sued into bankruptcy.
The anti-democratic proposal comes amid a surge in labor unrest across the U.K., with teachers in England and Wales voting Monday afternoon to strike on February 1, the same day 100,000 other public sector workers were already scheduled to walk off the job to demand better pay and benefits.
Monday night's rally , which began at 6:00 pm local time, featured several speakers. Those who took the stage include Mick Lynch, the popular Rail, Maritime, and Transport union leader behind Britain's recent rail strikes; Communication Workers Union general secretary Dave Ward; Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union; Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack; Jordan Rivera from National Health Service Workers Say No!; Paul Nowak, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress; and left-wing Labour Party MP Zarah Sultana.
"Make no mistake," Nowak told the crowd. "This bill is a fundamental attack on the right to strike that will force workers across the public sector to cross picket lines or face the sack."
Public and Commercial Services Union organizer Clare Keenan described the bill as an "attack on my human rights and those of my fellow workers."
"You can't make people go to work five days a week and hav[e] to use food banks and remov[e] their ability to protest," said Keenan. "It's just a hurdle that they're putting in the way to stop workers from taking industrial action."
\u201cJust wow. What a powerful demo tonight. #RightToStrike #EnoughIsEnough\u201d— Fire Brigades Union (@Fire Brigades Union) 1673910647
\u201cThe Tories' proposed new anti-worker law would see nurses, firefighters, teachers and other key workers sacked for striking for fair pay.\n\nTonight, outside Downing Street, I pledged to fight this attack on our democratic rights: From Parliament to the picket line #RightToStrike\u201d— Zarah Sultana MP (@Zarah Sultana MP) 1673903506
Inside the House of Commons, meanwhile, Sultana delivered a fiery speech outlining why she voted against the Tories' anti-strike legislation.
"There was a brief period in the pandemic, where we all recognized who keeps our country running. And it wasn't the city bankers, hot-shot lawyers, or big business executives," said Sultana. "It was the people who drive our buses, who sweep our streets, who post our mail, it's people who teach our kids, and nurse us back to health."
"Briefly, even the members opposite thanked them," Sultana said, referring to Conservative MPs. "They called them 'key workers' and 'heroes,' and clapped for them with the cameras rolling."
"But as key workers knew, clapping doesn't pay the bills, and with a decade of falling wages, they couldn't go on," Sultana continued. "As the cost of living has soared, workers are saying, 'enough is enough,' and they are demanding a better deal."
"Of course, the government's line has changed," said Sultana. "Members opposite are now calling workers 'greedy,' saying they are 'selfish.' They've started pitting workers against each other, saying that railway workers couldn't get a pay rise if nurses weren't, but that nurses weren't allowed a pay rise either."
"And now they've stooped to this: An anti-worker bill that threatens the civil liberties of us all," she added. "This new law would see key workers like nurses, railway workers, firefighters, and teachers fired for going on strike. From clapping nurses, they're sacking nurses."
According to Sultana: "They say it's about safety, but that word isn't mentioned even once in the pages of this bill. They say it's about bringing us in line with other European nations, but Britain already has some of the most restrictive anti-union laws in the Western world. And no matter what they say, it's definitely not about resolving current disputes; it's only inflaming tensions and making negotiations harder."
"What this bill is really about," she argued, "is shifting the balance of power: weakening the power of workers and making it easier for bosses to exploit them and for the government to ignore them."
On social media, Sultana slammed Tory MPs for "disgracefully" backing the bill but stressed that "the fight isn't over."
"Let's now build a movement to defend the right to strike and build a Britan fit for workers," she wrote, linking to an Enough Is Enough petition that has been signed by more than 160,000 people.
The Tories' anti-strike bill is not yet law. It remains at the committee stage in the House of Commons, where it must be passed for a third time. If that happens, the House of Lords must approve the legislation on three separate occasions as well before it becomes law.
"The right to strike is the vanguard of democracy and freedom."
Sunak's attempt to curtail the right to strike has been widely condemned. According to King's College, London law professor Ewan McGaughey, the legislation is best characterized as a "pay cut and forced labor bill" and would constitute a "gross violation of international law."
"The right to fair pay and collective action are inalienable rights, enshrined in the Universal Declaration that followed the Second World War, and the International Bill of Rights of 1966 ," McGaughey wrote Monday. "These rights exist because workers, faced with authoritarian employers and governments, could always do one thing: they could just say 'No. If they don't pay, we won't work.'"
McGaughey continued: "Strikes brought down the Kaiser. Strikes forced the Empire to quit India. Strikes opened the Iron Curtain. Strikes finished Apartheid in South Africa. The right to strike is the vanguard of democracy and freedom, and whether they have the self-awareness or not, Sunak and [Business Secretary Grant] Shapps are treading blindly down the road to tyranny, like Viktor Orbán's Hungary, or Vladimir Putin's Russia ."
"What should the government do to stop the strikes?" McGaughey asked. "First, it should not cut public workers' pay: an inflation-protected pay rise would cost just £10 billion, after tax and National Insurance receipts, on the government's own figures. This money can come from taxing Shell, BP, and big fossil fuel polluters whose excess profits have inflated bills and prices. Second, it should rebuild fair pay scales through sector-wide, good faith collective bargaining, and the right of workers to elect at least a third to half of directors on their enterprise board. Third, it should repeal the anti-strike laws, and enshrine a positive right to take collective action, including in solidarity, against reckless management shut downs."
Speaking in the House of Commons on Monday night, Labour Party deputy leader Angela Rayner gave voters a reason to show up for the next election, vowing to repeal the Tories' anti-strike bill, which she dubbed the "sacking nurses bill" and called one of the most "indefensible and foolish pieces of legislation to come before this House in modern times."
Sultana, for her part, delivered "a message to those watching at home who aren't sure about the strikes."
"If your pay is too low and your bills are too high, if you're struggling to make ends meet, if you can't get a doctor's appointment, you're not alone," said the lawmaker. "But the problem isn't striking workers. Your problem isn't migrants, refugees, or trans people either, or whoever the right-wing press is scapegoating today. Your problem is this Tory government and their 13 years of disastrous rule and the rigged economy that they've built."
"Because alongside record numbers of food banks, Britain has a record number of billionaires, record profits for big business, and record wealth for the top 1%," Sultana noted. "So let's bring together everyone who's had enough, and from the picket line to Parliament, let's fight for a better deal."