Fran Heathcote speaking with Jeremy Corbyn & Mick Lynch. Photo: PCS Left Unity

TUC Congress meets at a pivotal moment for the labour movement- Fran Heathcote #TUC23


“Trade unions now face the most restrictive laws in living memory, & we’re going to need every ounce of resilience we’ve got to fight back”

Fran Heathcote, PCS National President

By Fran Heathcote, PCS National President

The TUC Congress meets this week at a pivotal moment for the labour movement and its members. Trade unions now face the most restrictive laws in living memory, and we’re going to need every ounce of resilience we’ve got to fight back. And if the past twelve months have shown anything, we’re more than up for the challenge.

The focus of this year’s Congress will undoubtedly be on the government’s latest and most egregious attack on trade unions yet and how we fight back.  The latest barrage comes in the form of numerous bills that are designed to undermine unions and thwart any chance of improving the pay and terms of conditions of our members.

As well as the Public Order Bill and the EU Retained Law Bill, the Minimum Service Levels (MSL) Bill is a piece of legislation that goes straight for the jugular, effectively outlawing strike action in key sectors. The MSL bill will require individual workers to be forced to turn up for work on strike days by naming them on strike notices. If a worker doesn’t turn up, they could be fired with no protection from unfair dismissal. And it gets worse. Unions could face severe financial penalties if they fail to force those named workers to break their own strike. 

It’s an astonishingly brazen assault on a central trade union principle and the International Labour Organisation has criticised the legislation as a threat to the fundamental rights of workers in Britain. But as our movement always does, we will stand up and fight back, in the face of injustice. Motions at Congress this year will show how we’ll take a stand: through coordinated campaigns, legal challenges and non-compliance.

That we’ve got to this point is deeply worrying and it’s worth reflecting on how we got here. It was only last year that Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng tanked the economy and set off a chain of events that has caused immense suffering for the working class. The cost-of-living crisis that followed has been catastrophic, with mortgages, rents and shopping prices increasing astronomically. People simply cannot cope; a record number of foodbank parcels were handed out and over the winter period, more than half a million people visited warm banks because they couldn’t afford heating.

It’s a truly shameful record and what has the government done to mitigate it? Absolutely nothing. People have continued to struggle while companies rake in eye-watering profits. British Gas saw their profits jump by a staggering 900%, to just under £1 billion. All of this while families sit in dark, cold homes.

It’s a grotesque situation and it’s no wonder we saw an unprecedented wave of industrial action over the past twelve months. Workers from across the public and private sectors have been striking, with their unions demanding employers shield their members from the cost-of-living crisis and compensate them for the massive drop in living standards over the past decade.

Faced with this huge scale of unrest, the government has cynically chosen to attack unions rather than settle the disputes. It’s the actions of a government that simply does not care about the misery that millions of people are going through. They’re happy to prolong and intensify this misery in the name of getting one over on their age-old enemy, organised labour.

Members of my union, PCS, are sadly all too familiar with this government’s cruelty. Working across the civil service, PCS members deliver vital public services. During the pandemic, they went above and beyond, ensuring the public could access the essential services they relied on during a time of national crisis. Despite all this, the government treats its own workforce appallingly. PCS members have seen their living standards plummet for more than a decade and are worse off by £2,300 per year.

Our members made it clear that they’ve had enough. Last year we secured the highest vote for industrial action in our history and embarked on a campaign of targeted and all-member action. The strategy is working: For the first time in the history of PCS, we forced the government to increase its pay offer and secured a one-off lump sum payment for last year.

While the progress is welcome, the dispute is far from over and we’re currently in negotiations across our bargaining areas. We’ve been clear that if our members aren’t happy with the pay offer, we will re-ballot and resume our campaign of industrial action. We’ve shown that through the strength of our members’ action, we can move the government’s position and, if we need to, we can, and will, do it again.

As well as the government, our members’ show of strength should be noted by the Labour Party too. They look certain to win the next general election and their top priorities should be repealing all anti-union laws and giving our members the pay they deserve. The Labour Party was founded by trade unions, and this is the bare minimum we expect, anything less will be a monumental betrayal and our members won’t stand for it.

That’s why this year’s TUC Congress is so important. As this rotten government lurches from one crisis to another, our members continue to suffer. I’m immensely proud of the way our movement has fought back, and we won’t let up until our members are treated with respect and given the justice they are worthy of.

Fran Heathcote speaking with Jeremy Corbyn & Mick Lynch. Photo: PCS Left Unity
Fran Heathcote speaking with Jeremy Corbyn & Mick Lynch. Photo: PCS Left Unity

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