Earlier this month the ‘Strikes (Minimum Service) Bill’ was introduced to Parliament by Conservative MP Grant Schapps. The Bill would allow the government to implement rules forcing workers in some industries to work through strike action, with noncompliance leading to workers potentially being sacked.
The proposal has caused an uproar amongst unions and opposing political parties. While strongly contested in the House of Commons, the Bill passed with 315 votes to 246.
Vicky Foxcroft, Labour MP for Lewisham Deptford, expressed her frustration with the Bill stating,
“Despite our best efforts, last night the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill passed its remaining stages in the Commons...This shoddy, ill-thought through legislation is unworkable, impractical and a complete attack on the fundamental rights of workers”.
This Bill has prompted more action from union groups and individuals. There were a large number of protests in the UK on February 1st in response to the Bill, not just in larger metropolitan cities but also smaller communities that are also feeling left in the cold by the government such as Salisbury, Haywards Heath, and Kettering. A total 47 gatherings are expected to have taken place under the banner of the ‘Protect the Right to Strike’ rallies.
Strike action has a long and turbulent history in the UK. The first recorded instances of strike action appear in the 17th-century. However, Trade Unions only became legal bodies in the late 18th-century via the Trade Union Act of 1871. The result of this legislation was a series of organized strike action by underpaid employees that fought against the prosperous business owners of the time. One major example of this is the Match Girls Strike of 1888. In an organized event in July, which many people believe really sparked the New Unionism Movement, 1400 of the mainly female workforce of Bryant and May's matchstick manufacturing company refused to work over issues relating to extremely low pay, unfair treatment, and unsafe conditions. Conditions that, in some cases, lead to phosphorus necrosis due to the toxic substances in the work environment. This ultimately resulted in the employers agreeing to increase wages, eliminate fines, and recognise the Matchmakers Union.
Since the Trade Union Act of 1871, Conservative governments have a history of attempting to limit the powers and autonomy of Trade Union bodies. Legislation under the Margaret Thatcher and John Major conservative governments between 1979 and 1997, produced a series of Employment Acts and one Trade Union Act that limited the ability of strikers and their representative unions.
The Strikes (Minimum Service) Bill is not the only recent example in which the Conservative party has been seen to overstep Public Action rights.
The PCSC Bill (Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act), which passed on the 28th of April 2022 was condemned by critics for provisions that would allow police officers more discretion in clamping down on protests amongst other changes, such as a ‘noise trigger’ (where police can put restrictions on a protest if deemed too noisy) and a new, specified definition of disruption.
Amongst nationwide protests, talk of a General Strike has been contemplated.
A General Strike hasn’t been seen in the UK for nearly 100 years. Such action would highlight the level of discontent amongst industry workers and the general population.
Mick Lynch, General Secretary of the Rail, Maritime, and Transport Union (RMT), has predicted some form of generalised action in a recent interview with JOE.
“Whether we can get a general strike or not is a matter of waiting and seeing what develops”, stated Myck Lynch. “...But I definitely think there will be generalized action”.
The Strikes (Minimum Service) Bill still has to pass in the House of Lords before it can be passed into law.
Government response to the criticism they received has been firm. Business Minister Kevin Hollinrake backs the move stating,
"We need to maintain a reasonable balance between the ability to strike and the ability to keep the lives and livelihoods of the British public safe".
This Bill has the capacity to drive a wedge even further between industry workers that keep this country moving and the government who run it. Already unions have expressed frustration at the government's lack of willingness to negotiate. The Bill they have passed certainly aligns with this no nonsense, no compromise approach that Number Ten seems to hold in relation to Strike Action.
Image credits:"House of Common, London" by Ben124. is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
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