No one should be sacked for trying to win a better deal at work
In recent months, workers across the UK have been taking action for fair pay, decent conditions, and better public services.
Nurses, teachers, railway workers, civil servants, postal workers, ambulance workers, bus drivers, freight workers, barristers, junior doctors, university staff and refuse workers have all taken strike action in the last year. On 1 February alone, an estimated half a million people were on strike, the biggest day of industrial action in more than a decade.
Many of these disputes were sparked by unsatisfactory pay offers that failed to keep up with the rate of inflation. But workers across the public sector are also warning that the services they run – our hospitals, schools, and public transport networks – can no longer cope with the pressures of low pay, understaffing and funding cuts.
In this context, we would expect to see an employer getting around the table with unions, listening to workers’ concerns and negotiating fair pay agreements.
Instead, the government plans to introduce anti-strike legislation.
What does the legislation do?
The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill 2023 is intended to amend the legal framework governing industrial action to enable Minimum Service Levels to be set in key sectors during periods of strike action. Effectively, it overrides democratic and lawful votes for strike action by workers in six essential sectors: health, education, fire, transport, border security and nuclear decommissioning.
Workers in these sectors could be forced to work on strike days and sacked if they refuse to comply. Unions who fail to adhere to the government’s requirements could face million-pound fines.
But beyond that, the Bill provides little detail about how the new law would be implemented. It doesn’t outline what the “minimum service levels” would be, or precisely define the six sectors impacted. Additionally, it fails to recognise that in key sectors, arrangements for emergency cover are already agreed in good faith between employers and unions.
Britain already has some of the most restrictive trade union laws in Europe. And put simply, this bill is another open attack on the fundamental right to strike.
Undemocratic, unworkable and almost certainly illegal
In the months since its introduction to parliament, criticism of the draconian legislation has poured in from many different directions.
The TUC (Trade Union Congress) has described the bill as “undemocratic, unworkable and almost certainly illegal.” Union leaders have also warned that by closing off legitimate and effective avenues for workers to express their demands, the law could make strikes more frequent, lengthy, and divisive.
Parliament’s joint committee on human rights has concluded that the proposals are “not justified and should be reconsidered” because they fail to meet the UK’s human rights obligations.
A group of 50 civil liberties organisations, including Liberty, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam, slammed the bill in an open letter, calling it “an unwarranted curtailment of freedom of assembly and association” that “has the potential to cause significant damage to fair and effective industrial relations in this country.”
Feminist campaigners have warned that the bill discriminates against women, who are over-represented in the sectors involved. And race equalities organisations are concerned that Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) workers could be unfairly targeted for dismissal under the auspices of the bill.
The anti-strikes bill is currently passing through the House of Lords, where peers and parliamentary committees have raised major concerns about its viability. But the government has shown no intention of scrapping or significantly amending the legislation.
But working people are fighting back. More than a quarter of a million people have already signed the TUC’s petition. You can add your name and join the campaign.