Disabled People for Free Trade Unions: TUC Disabled Workers’ Conference Fringe Meeting 2022

These are the opening speeches from this event, held on Zoom on Tuesday 22 March 2022.


Sarah Woolley (General Secretary, Bakers’, Food and Allied Workers’ Union): Welcome to the joint RMT and Free Our Unions TUC Disabled Workers’ Conference fringe meeting.

As unions fight back against discrimination and disabling workplace barriers, we are chained by appalling, anti‑democratic anti‑union laws, strict balloting rules, bans on solidarity strikes, restrictions on political spending and more. And we know there are more anti‑union laws to come. The Tories plan to force transport unions to run a minimum service during our own strikes and the Police Bill attacks our right to protest and to picket. Our two fantastic speakers today are going to look at how these laws affect us, how we can campaign against them and how we can win their repeal.

Our first speaker is Janine Booth, who most of you will know. She’s the secretary of the RMT Disabled Members Advisory Committee.


Janine Booth: I am going to talk about how anti‑trade union laws harm the fight for disabled people’s rights and then I am going to ask you to do three things to help the fight against them.

Britain’s anti‑trade union legislation makes it harder for unions to fight for the rights of disabled workers and disabled people more generally. How does it do this?

Firstly, it limits issues on which unions may take lawful action. Trade unions may take lawful industrial action only in pursuit of what the law calls bona fide trade disputes, which means a quite narrow definition of the dispute over terms and conditions with just your employer. That means that unions may strike to defend their own members’ jobs, but they can’t strike for the right to have a job or benefits including for disabled people. Trade unions are allowed to strike for higher pay for their own members, but they are not allowed to strike against benefit sanctions against disabled claimants.

Here’s an example. In 2014 the Tory-LibDem coalition government announced that it was going to close the Independent Living Fund, a fund that provided grants to high-needs disabled people to enable them to live in the community rather than in residential care. But no matter how much it affected workers in our personal lives, no matter how strongly we felt about it as a blatant injustice, the law barred all but those few people who worked in the running of the fund from striking to defend it. In essence, the law allows trade unions only to act selfishly and then when we do, the Tories and the media denounce us for being selfish.

The law makes us jump through hoops. It allows trade unions to call industrial action on bona fide trade disputes, but only after following an onerous list of procedural requirements.

You might have blatant disability discrimination at work, for example, a disabled worker being sacked or the employer imposing a discriminatory policy. But in order to take action, you would have to hold a postal ballot with two lots of notice; one of one week and one of two weeks, and hand over a huge volume of information before you can even take action. If the union makes any errors during that process, even minor ones, then the employer can ask the court to injunct the industrial action, which means the court can order the union to stop the industrial action, for it not to take place until a full hearing can happen; and even if the union follows these procedures flawlessly, by the time it’s done so, your workmate has been sacked or the discriminatory policy is in place and you are fighting at best a rearguard action.

By contrast, employers don’t have to give notice or hold postal ballots before attacking workers’ rights or conditions. We just have to do it in order to fight back.

The law also drains trade union political funds. Employers spend money on political donations and political lobbying, for example, against stronger requirements on them to be accessible to disabled people. The law does not require workers to opt in to the product of our labour being spent in this way by our employers. However, it does require us to opt in to our own trade unions’ political funds to spend money on political lobbying in the interest of union members and working-class people more generally, including disabled people. The requirement for trade unions to hold separate separate funds for political campaigning and representation came in an anti‑union law that was passed over a century ago; and the law, which still stands, says that unions may only pay for campaigning – for example, we might campaign for stronger laws against disability discrimination – from this particular fund. More recently, further legislation weakened the political funds by allowing members to opt out of them and then in 2016 the Tory government’s Trade Union Act changed this requirement to opt in, so that a union member has to positively assent to make their contribution to the political fund. It’s a very small contribution, but from thousands of workers it all adds up. It’s very easy to miss this opt‑in when signing up to join a union when you are doing it on a form or online. These moves have been deliberate moves by the Tories to limit the resources that are available to trade unions to campaign against discriminatory and anti‑union policies.

The law also requires us to vote only by post. It requires industrial action and some union election ballots to be conducted solely by post. There’s an irony here, or a hypocrisy – depending on how you want to look at it. The government itself has a policy called ‘digital by default’: by default, public services operate digitally. And yet it won’t apply the same principles; it won’t even give an option for trade unions to use modern technology to enable our members to vote more easily or to take votes in workplaces. And the requirement for ballots to be postal-only presents a barrier to some disabled people, particularly those with impairments that make it more difficult to receive, fill in by hand and post a ballot form.

Furthermore, while insisting on this antiquated voting method – this reduces turnout because of the barriers it presents – the law now requires industrial action ballots to reach a turnout threshold. So, they make it hard for you to vote and then they say, ‘not enough of you have voted so you cannot have your strike’.

The government does not apply this standard to other areas of political and civil life. Many of the MPs who voted for this legislation would not even be in Parliament if the thresholds applied to their own elections.

Law after law has restricted various aspects of effective trade unionism; for example, picketing and intensified state regulation of trade union affairs.

The Tories of course claim that they introduced these laws to democratise unions. Ha‑ha! Nonsense! In reality, they introduced them in order to shackle and neutralise trade unions because trade unions are going to fight this sort of thing that the Tories do.

You might think that all those anti‑union laws I’ve described would be enough for the Tories, but apparently not! There are more to come. The next anti‑union law on the agenda is to require a minimum service to run during rail and transport strikes. So even if the union has a bona fide trade dispute, even if it meets all the requirements and the ballot passes all the thresholds, it would still not be allowed to call an all-out strike. The law will require the union to collaborate in minimising the effect of its own action, to organise scabbing on its own dispute. It’s an appallingly oppressive law which the RMT’s Annual General Meeting took a strong stand against and said that even if it does become law, we are not going to be collaborating in setting minimum service levels.

This new law was among the Conservative Party pledges in the 2019 general election. It has not pursued it so far, but we can expect that as the pandemic passes its peak it will bring this unfair and repressive proposal forward. We can also expect that it will promote this new law by referring to the rights of passengers, including disabled passengers. This is appalling hypocrisy from a Tory government which has a record of systematic attacks on disabled people, and it will be a cynical use of disabled people as a pretext to restrict the rights to strike. Contrary to Tory claims, it is in the interests of disabled people to defend the right to strike and to reject attempts to divide transport workers and passengers against each other.

TUC Disabled Workers’ Conference has a strong policy for the scrapping of all anti‑union laws and, as promised, we are going to ask you to do three things to support this crucial fight.

Firstly, there is an article I would like you to read and circulate to spread the word about how harmful these laws are to disabled people.

Secondly, we are today, from this meeting, launching a statement Disabled People for Free Trade Unions; initial signatories are myself, Sarah and John, and we would like you to add your name to that statement again.

Thirdly, we are asking you to write a short statement or record a short, like 30 seconds, video clip of yourselves saying why you as a disabled person support the right to strike and the scrapping of anti‑union laws and email it to the address I am going to put in the chat.

Sarah: The Tories are intent on dividing us wherever they can, and the minimum service fiasco (because there’s no other word that I can think of that’s diplomatic to say at a fringe meeting) is just another avenue to attempt to divide disabled people and trade unionists. We have got to work together to make sure that that doesn’t happen. I would really like to see them try to enforce it because RMT, as I’ve said on many platforms, you shut the whole of London down when you go on strike as Tube workers – how the hell are they going to try to enforce that? There’s not enough room in the police stations or prisons to lock you all up, is there?

On to our next speaker, who needs very little introduction. He is a brilliant comrade to the trade union movement. John McDonnell MP, you are most welcome.


John McDonnell MP: Each year when we’ve had the discussions around TUC Disabled Workers’ Conference, we’ve tried to do an assessment of where we are at in terms of the rights of disabled people and disabled workers and the situation that we are facing. We’ve discussed the ways in which we secure protections but also advances, and there are three ways.

One is through our action as members of trade unions: the industrial work that we do in negotiations; the development of worker participation in decision‑making at work itself: the protection of basic terms and conditions of employment, the negotiations around wages, and wherever necessary taking the appropriate action to further our cause. Trade unions have become one of the most effective vehicles in which disabled people in this country and across the world have had a say in a significant part of their lives, which is either their lives at work and also looking at the wider social issues that we need to address as well, including the support that comes from the state.

The second area is direct action – what do I mean by that? I mean the lobbying that we do, the demonstrating that we do; the occupations that we have undertaken – forms of social movement activities that in many ways have enabled us to highlight the plight of disabled people and disabled workers in particular and also highlight the sort of reforms and demands that we are making on governments and employers and others.

The third area is the electoral process. That’s about how we elect or influence political parties and to ensure that we have an agenda of reform, legislative reform, that will provide people with basic trade unions rights which are in effect basic human rights.

My argument today is that in all three fronts now we are under attack and that we need to recognise that. This is a period in which the political climate and the industrial climate is one of almost wartime engagement; they are coming at us all ways. Janine has gone through the legislation that’s already on the statute book that has been used against us, and the potential that there is for further action particularly issues around minimum service guarantees etc, and other aspects of preventing trade unions operating, impeding them, allowing workers the voice. But I also just want to say that the industrial climate is changing because employers assess, quite rightly, what this government is all about, and therefore think that they can literally get away with anything. The starkest examples have been over the last couple of years with the development of fire and re‑hire policies.

In my own constituency, British Airways at Heathrow Airport started the whole process of fire and re‑hire where they laid off the whole workforce with the ambition of cutting wages and undermining terms and conditions permanently. Our reaction was to organise and take industrial action, closing down the airport and forcing the employers to the negotiating table at which we had considerable success in protecting jobs, wages and conditions. The next wave of that is fire and not re‑hire with regard to the P&O dispute; 800 workers just sacked brutally. You saw the scenes of the security guards going on to the ships to take people off, and over the last 24 hours what the intention was – to replace the RMT members, the seafarers, with workers, migrant workers earning in some instances less than £2 an hour.

Employers like P&O and DP World (the mother company) wouldn’t act like that if they didn’t think they could get away with it. The reason they think they can get away with it is exactly as Janine has set out – because existing trade union legislation in this country is so weak; and I believe they are getting signals from this government about future legislation that will assault trade unions even further.

Ministers were informed before the company took this action and they did nothing. I think that was, whatever government ministers say, giving the green light to the employer that they could go ahead and get away with it. As Mick Lynch said yesterday, sometimes people accuse us of conspiracy theories and sometimes conspiracy theories develop because there is a conspiracy going on. I think a number of employers looked at this government, looked at the legislation and realised they can get away with anything and therefore I think we are going to witness in this coming period an assault on trade unions at the industrial level. The issue for us – and this is the tragedy in all of this – is that we know the people who get affected the most in this, who are the most vulnerable, have always been disabled workers because employers think that they can sack disabled workers more easily than other workers. Tragically, there have been too many examples of that happening. Thank goodness that over this last decade, because the organisation that we have undertaken within our trade unions, because the organisation that disabled workers themselves have undertaken, we have been able to fight that one back quite steadily and have some considerable successes.

We’ve got to demonstrate absolute solidarity in this coming period of struggle with every worker now that is sacked, and that the demands are very straightforward – reinstatement (and we start with the P&O workers). The way in which we do that is that we support industrial action, and wherever we can undertake sympathetic action, because it strengthens all our arms. I look at the TUC now to obtain a more direct role in co‑ordinating the action that we need to protect us, because if P&O get away with sacking these 800 workers, to be honest no worker will be safe in their employment. That will mean disabled workers who particularly will be the most vulnerable in all of these struggles. It also means as well that we need to firm up what we want in terms of legislative change.

Janine has set out succinctly and clearly the sort of legislation that’s in place at the moment. We need to have, first of all scrapping but then rebuilding on the basis of the Institute of Employment Rights Programme that was adopted by us in the last two general elections. One of the key elements of that was the restoration of collective bargaining across all sectors of our economy, so we can negotiate sectorally, set wage rates effectively and build upon those wage rates. Why is that important now? Because of the cost-of-living crisis that people are facing – it’s an easy phrase to use: ‘the cost-of-living crisis’, but the reality of it is more and more people driven into poverty. It isn’t just about what’s happening in terms of Covid; it’s not just about Ukraine; it’s about 40 years of neo‑liberalism imposing these sorts of anti‑trade-union policies that undermine our ability to negotiate decent wage rates. If we look at what is happening: the scandal for example in the council workers: 1.75% offer and agreement. In the light of 8% inflation, that means that large numbers of those workers will be impoverished.

On the trade union front, we have to recognise that we are going into a period of absolute struggle and what we have to do is make sure that we express solidarity in all those struggles and co‑ordinate them as much as possible. The second threat is to our ability to take direct action. The Police and Crime Bill has gone through the Commons, it has gone into the Lords. There are amendments and it comes back to us in the House of Commons next Monday. It’s one of the most significant pieces of legislation that we will see as trade unionists because it will outlaw the ability for us to demonstrate, because it is an undermining of that basic human right – freedom of assembly. Demonstrations, if they emit a certain level of noise as determined by the police officer on the ground at that demonstration, will be made illegal. What we will see is people arrested and the criminal law used. It is a fundamental attack on human rights that we have won as a result of struggles over centuries.

Let me just raise also the issue with regards to the electoral process, the third arm of our activities. How do we change the laws by electing political parties and lobbying political parties to ensure we have a clear legislative base of human rights and trade union rights? People need to wake up to the fact that in addition to the Police and Crime Bill, we also have an Elections Bill, one part of it specifically aimed at undermining the ability of trade unions and other community organisations using their resources to campaign in general elections and to lobby government and political parties. Worse than that, it introduces an element of voter suppression, so that people will be required just as in America to have some form of ID for the actual vote itself. The independent calculation that was provided to the House of Commons Select Committee is that we could see about a 3% drop in the number of people voting at elections. That’s huge; we are talking about millions here. We are talking about a large number of people who do not have access to ID, who will not be able to cope with the new system and as a result of that will lose their right to vote. The research demonstrated that one of the most affected groups in our society will be disabled people. This is undermining the franchise of disabled workers to even affect the electoral process itself.

I think this government is proto‑fascist: all those elements that undermine our basic civil liberties and our democratic rights. In this Election Bill, this is the first time in our history that we have a government that will be able to interfere with the Electoral Commission, which is an independent body to overview the elections. It will be able to dictate its work because it will determine the guidance given to the Electoral Commission. That’s a fundamental attack on our democratic rights.

Put all that together and that’s why I say we are in this period now which I think will mean intense struggles – in terms of trade union industrial work, that we do solidarity action; direct action, so that no matter what legislation goes through, we still assert the right to assemble and, yes, make a noise in our demonstrations; and then electorally as well. I think the assault on the right to vote is going to be key in this coming period. We assert the right to vote by making sure people, no matter what the system, are properly registered and are enabled to exercise that right to vote. The key, fundamental element of all of this is the essential ingredient of solidarity. What I found inspiring in these last few months is that at every dispute I have turned up to, every rally, every picket, the scale of solidarity across the trade union movement at the moment is absolutely inspiring. We are seeing that over the P&O dispute as well.

This is the time when we build our movement. We do it exactly as Janine has set out: we expose what the existing legislative process has done for disabled workers and we produce a programme of radical reform to restore basic democratic rights and trade union rights for disabled workers. In addition, we build upon that by making sure we have a movement again. Under the direction of the rank and file from the Bakers’ Union, a rank-and-file-controlled union in which the leadership of the union reps, their members tell them what they want and as a result of that have built the union. That’s the sort of revival of the trade union movement that’s going on at the moment and I will do everything I can to support it.