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UK Anti-Strike Legislation: Government To Introduce Service Levels For Key Sectors

After a sustained period of strikes across public sector jobs in the UK, the government has taken action in the form of anti-strike legislation. The new legislation will introduce “minimum service levels” for key professions, such as in the NHS or in schools, which will effectively ban unionized workers from striking.

Bosses in rail, education, emergency services, and nuclear commissioning, would be able to both sue trade unions and sack employees who strike despite this legislation. Business Secretary, Grant Shapps, claimed on Friday that this legislation would “restore the balance between those seeking to strike and protecting the public from disproportionate disruption”.

This legislation comes after six months of strike action by unions across the aforementioned occupations, with rail workers leading the charge in June 2022. Amid a cost of living crisis that has seen inflation hit 11%, the Rail, Maritime, and Transport (RMT) union went on strike due to unmet demands for a 7% pay rise for its workers.

Both the RMT and ASLEF, the predominant union representing train drivers, have called for an end to compulsory redundancies, the cutting of staff in a move to a technology-driven rail service, and an equalizing of pay across all workers involved in rail travel.

The government says that post-pandemic travel has changed to such an extent that railways are seeing 25% fewer customers, and so funding must reduce in line with this; RMT General Secretary, Mick Lynch, noted that the government has “cut £4 billion of funding from our transport systems – £2 billion from national rail and £2 billion from Transport for London”.

Public support for strikes varies across sectors, with a YouGov study from December 2022 finding that, whilst 66% of respondents supported nurse strikes, only 43% supported rail workers, with Transport for London workers garnering the support of just 36% of those asked. Public support for rail strikes has declined over the last few months, with Ipsos Mori finding that the prospect of reduced train services over the Christmas period had dampened the support felt for rail workers and the RMT union.

Hoping to ride on the coattails of increased disapproval at strike action, the Conservatives have ensured that they are seen as the party to stand against union activity. The Conservatives 2019 manifesto contained a pledge to introduce minimum service requirements, with former Prime Minister Liz Truss promising to introduce hard-line anti-strike legislation to make so-called “militant” union activity “futile”.

This new legislation has faced widespread criticism, with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer promising to repeal any anti-strike laws should Labour form the next government. This sets his Labour Party apart from the Conservatives on the issue of workers’ rights, a shrewd political intervention, especially after the sacking of MP Sam Tarry from his role as Shadow Transport Secretary for joining an RMT picket line in July 2022.

Union leaders are understandably furious with the government’s new plans. Sharon Graham of Unite saying that: “Yet again, Rishi Sunak abdicates his responsibility as a leader”, whilst Sara Gorton of Unison claimed that the government was simply using the NHS as a political battleground, with the introduction of legal minimum staffing levels solely for strike days indicating that “proper patient care isn’t what ministers want”.

A belief that the government is using trade unionism as a scapegoat for wider societal issues was entrenched further by an Observer exposé which said that PM Rishi Sunak had considered a ban on Border Force workers joining trade unions.

Whilst this option has since been dropped, the fact that it was on the table in the first place has incited yet more criticism from key union figures. Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, noted that this series of leaked emails would have been tantamount to one of the “biggest attacks on fundamental rights and freedoms” should their ideas have been introduced.

It is expected that unions will take legal action against this legislation, although the success of their claims is not guaranteed; France and Spain have recently introduced similar minimum service legislation, with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) allowing for interference in union activity “where necessary and where such interference can be justified.”

The Institute for Employment Rights has found that there was a 1% increase in trade union membership between 2019/20 and 2020/21, with one-in-ten workers (6.7 million) now belonging to a union. Whilst there is little chance of proving that increased union membership is directly linked to publicised union activity, if union membership continues to rise, the government may face a rebellion not only in the House of Commons but also from the public come to the next election.


Cover image available from RMT

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Tags: #politics #ukpolitics #strikes #tradeunions

1 comment

2 weeks, 5 days ago by GordonP18

This government and the employers have been gaslighting constantly to undermine the validity of this strike and others - it links well to your article on the Word of the Year!

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