Matt Wrack and Mick Lynch: brothers should become comrades

Expect more hot air

Claims of defying the government’s latest anti-trade union laws and at the same time supporting its war aims in Ukraine are in flat contradiction, writes Eddie Ford

Last week’s Trade Union Congress conference in Liverpool was both encouraging and discouraging, highlighting the contradictions of the movement. This year Sir Keir Starmer did not address it (although on Monday evening at the gala dinner with union leaders he did give a “relaxed” speech, in which he joked about Ed Miliband “serenading wind farms” with his ukulele).

Rather, he decided it was Angela Rayner’s turn to take the limelight - presumably on the basis that the deputy leader would have more appeal, which is doubtlessly true. You can see why Starmer would make such a calculation. Beneath the apparent camaraderie and jokes, deep suspicions remain within the unions about the direction of Starmer’s Labour Party, particularly in the wake of his wide-ranging reshuffle that saw him appoint what many see as a gaggle of ‘Blairites’ into his new shadow cabinet. Perhaps as evidence of this bubbling dissatisfaction, Unite leader Sharon Graham did not attend the gala dinner, and used her speech on September 11 to urge Labour to nationalise the energy sector.

Angela Rayner

So give Rayner a chance to shine and win the hearts of the delegates, especially as she is now the shadow levelling-up secretary. Before her September 12 speech, she was tellingly introduced to the platform as “one of us”. Admittedly, she got off to an awkward start, when her opening remark about Liverpool being famous for two things - the Beatles and Paul Nowak, the new TUC general secretary - fell totally flat. But after that she hit her stride: “I may have been born in Stockport,” she said. “But I was raised in the trade union movement”. In a short speech, which naturally got her a standing ovation, she said that a Labour government would bolster statutory sick pay and ensure that it is paid by employers from the first day off work. Of course, this announcement was part of Labour’s wider ‘New deal for working people’, which includes measures such as extending statutory maternity and paternity leave, banning ‘fire and rehire’ and - most importantly of all for those at the conference - “reversing” the anti-union legislation from 2016 onwards. Whether Labour’s promises mean anything we will soon find out, as the general election can only be a year or so away, with a Starmer victory clearly on the cards.

This brings us to the most positive aspect of this year’s conference - the unanimous passing of a resolution on resisting the latest round of Tory anti-trade union laws that seek to enforce “minimum service levels” during industrial action by public service workers, including NHS doctors, train drivers, etc. It will allow employers in such sectors to issue a ‘work notice’ in advance of industrial action, specifying which staff are necessary to provide a minimum level of service. Unions that do not comply could be open to legal action, and the named employees could ultimately be sacked if they fail to turn up - a truly iniquitous and vicious piece of anti-working class legislation.

Anyhow, the motion says: “We have no choice but to build mass opposition to the minimum service levels laws, up to and including a strategy of non-compliance and non-cooperation to make them unworkable, including industrial action.” Matt Wrack, Fire Brigades Union general secretary and the newly elected TUC president, described it as a “message of defiance” to the government, signalling that “this government’s nasty, authoritarian agenda will be vigorously opposed by the trade union movement”.

After the resolution was passed, Paul Nowak stressed that it was not encouraging workers to disobey the law - oh no, that would be going too far. But the motion does call for a “special congress” to be held “to explore options for non-compliance and resistance”, therefore it is a question of the correct tactics and strategy. According to one union top, “We’re not going to allow ourselves to be fined out of existence” - so there is a distinct danger of a token demonstration and lot of platform hot air followed by compliance and cooperation ... and then the hope that Sir Keir comes to the rescue.

Matt Wrack and Mick Lynch have already more or less given the game away in a joint interview (Tribune September 11 2023). This is brother Wrack:

We’ve got to be very careful of what we do. We haven’t said we’re going to break the law or anything. What we’re saying is the movement as a whole needs to set an agenda to defeat this legislation by whatever means we can. We’re not in the 1970s. There were twelve million trade unionists back then. We’re about half the size that we used to be. Building union membership is a key aspect of fighting back.

So instead of defeating the legislation by “whatever means are necessary”, we get “whatever means we can” … but not risk the union bank accounts, offices and salaries. Either way the resolution is positive because it opens the door for a campaign to scrap, to make ineffective all anti-trade union laws.

This certainly means learning the lessons of the 1970s. It was not so much that the trade union movement had 12 million members. That in no small part was down to the Harold Wilson-Jim Callaghan Labour government. In return for compliance with pay ‘restraint’, curbing the power of stop stewards and judicialisation of industrial relations, the trade union bureaucracy got measures which made it easy to recruit more members, along with a check-off system whereby employers, not grass roots activists, collected union dues.

No, the lesson from the 1970s that needs to be learnt is the defeat of Tory prime minister Ted Heath and his Industrial Relations Act. Only one big union complied with the legislation by officially registering as a trade union, which was the EETPU electricians’ union under the notorious ex-communist-turned-anti-communist, Frank Chapple (sorry, Lord Chapple). More to the point, we had five dockers openly defy the law by refusing to obey a court order to stop picketing a container depot in east London - and getting arrested by the police, becoming famous as the Pentonville Five in the process. And the TUC was forced into a position of threatening a one-day general strike unless they were released. But what was going on in the meantime, of course, was that the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions, led by the ‘official’ CPGB, was actually organising illegal walkouts across the country - hundreds of thousands of workers were already taking directly political action against the anti-trade union laws.

Then the Tory government blinked and sent in the Official Solicitor - a person most people had never heard of before - and he announced that the five should be released. They were, to much cheering and celebration on our side.

Everybody knew that Heath had suffered a major political defeat, which culminated in the second miners’ strike and the calling of a general election on the basis of who runs Britain - him or the unions? The electorate decided it was not Ted Heath!

Not that you should have any great faith in the ‘official’ Communist Party of the early 1970s. Putting it mildly, its politics and leadership were deeply problematic. Nevertheless, it existed and was organised not only geographically, but also industrially - having real influence and social weight in the trade union movement, including at the top (but crucially at the base). Obviously, there is nothing like that at the present. But if brothers Wrack and Lynch were to throw themselves into the fight for a reforged Communist Party and become comrades then there would be a good chance of turning words into deeds.


Showing precisely why we should be sceptical about the likes of Nowak, conference voted by a large margin to basically line up the TUC with British foreign policy (and hence US foreign policy) over the Ukraine war - a big negative. This was a composite motion that originated from the GMB, the third largest union, which was responsible last year for a narrowly won motion calling for increased ‘defence’ spending. So they have form, when it comes to looking for crumbs from the imperialist table.

This year’s vote, after a lot of haggling and last-minute changes to the text, says that Congress “unequivocally condemns Russia’s illegal, aggressive invasion of Ukraine” and supports “Ukrainian unions’ calls for financial and practical aid from the UK to Ukraine”. It demands “the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from all Ukrainian territories occupied since 2014” - ie, Crimea and the eastern Donbas region. Clearly, this is a craven endorsement of the war policies of the US, UK and the EU powers, who have spent billions with the hope and expectation that Kyiv will fight to the very last Ukrainian in a conflict designed to force regime change in Moscow and open up the entire region to imperialist carve-up and exploitation. The original version of the text explicitly backed sending arms!

Incredibly, Nato is not even mentioned and the government only appears once in a reference to delay and denial of refuge to Ukrainians. Speaker after speaker claimed they wanted peace, at the same time demanding that Russia withdraws from Crimea before peace talks can commence. This is obviously putting preconditions on talks which mean they will almost certainly never happen - so much so that an embarrassed Paul Nowak issued an ‘explanation’, making out that the motion was not putting such preconditions. But how else can you read it, Paul?

There was lots of talk about ‘workers’ rights’ being oppressed by imperialism - that is, Russian ‘imperialism’ and nothing about the role of Nato expansion, nor the US struggle to do down its only serious rival, China, and rebooting its global hegemony. We even had Mark Serwotka - the retiring PCS general secretary and in the 1980s a member of the Socialist Organiser Alliance (one of the earlier iterations of today’s social-imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty) - denying that the Ukrainian conflict was a proxy war. But, Mark, you can find US senators and generals saying exactly that - it is not simply a Russian invasion, or a Ukrainian civil war that Russia intervened in.

This pitiful motion got through because it was backed by the big unions - the GMB, Unison and Unite (after some initial hesitation), not to mention Aslef and the NUM. There were some honourable exceptions. The FBU’s Jamie Newell spoke well about why his union opposed the motion - the bakers union too took something like a principled position. We also had abstentions from the NEU, the UCU and the RMT.

Predictably, there were ‘leftwing’ rightwing delegates comparing Ukraine to the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War - which is totally risible. We all remember from our history books how Britain, the US and France ploughed in money, arms and supplies to the republican side … Of course, you remember no such thing! Rather, there was a policy of hostile ‘neutrality’ and active involvement on the side of Franco by the armed forces of Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany.

But the past is always a safe space where social-imperialists can make play of their ‘leftwing’ credentials and pretend that they have not sold out. No, yesterday and today, the main enemy is at home. That, by definition, means opposing the foreign policy of your own government. Foreign policy is a continuation of domestic policy - the former flows from and is subordinate to the latter.