We are calling on councils to explicit reject the Strikes Act, write Rob Poole, Carolyn Jones, Adrian Weir and Henry Fowler
A new front has opened in the battle to defend trade union rights from the latest onslaught by the anti-worker Tory government. A coalition of campaign groups and unions led by Strike Map and the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom (CTUF) has launched a nationwide campaign calling on councils across Britain to refuse to implement the draconian Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act which came into force this year.
This pernicious law grants employers new powers to undermine strike action by compelling certain union members to work and break strikes. Through the issuing of “work notices”, employers can force employees to cross picket lines or risk dismissal.
Refusal by unions to comply can lead to bankruptcy through the sequestration of their assets. “This act is nothing short of union busting,” said Mick Whelan, General Secretary of the train drivers’ union, ASLEF “It overtly seeks to undermine the basic right of workers to withdraw their labour.”
The new legislation identifies six sectors that will be impacted by Minimum Service Levels (MSLs): healthcare, fire services, education, transport, nuclear decommissioning, and border security. The government claims disruption must be minimised in these ‘essential services’, but the sweeping scope betrays their real motive – sabotaging the right to take industrial action.
Councils employ thousands of workers across these sectors. If implemented by local authorities, MSLs will hamper the ability of groups like teachers; education support staff; municipal transport workers, especially on tramways; and, the fire and rescue service to fight for better pay and conditions. That’s why unions are demanding that council leaders definitively reject the issuing of work notices.
Both the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly have refused to introduce MSLs, so the campaign is targeted at English councils. The tactic is to mobilise union members to flood local leaders with e-mails insisting their authorities uphold the right to strike.
The responses will be mapped ahead of May’s local elections to highlight the stances taken. Henry Fowler, Strike Map co-founder and steering group member, called on all councils and employers to reject the Act’s provisions outright. “Scotland, Wales and Sheffield are already designated as ‘MSL freezones’, now we want to see this across the country.”
Where councils indicate they will comply with the legislation, the coalition plans an escalation of tactics for example petitions, phone calls and protests at town halls to show councils the strength of feeling that exists.
Sheffield City Council has passed a motion dismissing MSLs and school multi academy trusts (MATS) across England have pledged not to issue work notices. The goal now is to spread non-implementation nationwide.
Unions recognise that the Strikes Act is just the latest in decades of efforts to strangle trade unionism. Since the Thatcher era, Britain has seen some of the most draconian anti-strike laws in Europe. So while killing off MSLs is the first aim, the ultimate mission is building pressure on the next government to repeal the broader raft of restrictions.
That’s why the campaign is actively connecting with community groups, campaign organisations and union branches. Building a mass coalition that penetrates into every town will be key.
Union support so far includes Association of Educational Psychologists, ASLEF, Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU), General Federation of Trade Unions, Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association, National Education Union, Psychotherapy and Counselling Union, Transport Salaried Staff Association and the United Road Transport Union.
“They want to turn union members against each other, force them to scab on their friends and colleagues,” said Sarah Woolley, General Secretary of the BFAWU and also co-chair of the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom “We cannot stand by and let the government attack our members, not when we’re fighting for fair pay and treatment.”
Veteran activists know that such laws can often turn out to be paper tigers. The last Tory government introduced brutal strike ballot thresholds, but most unions have adapted their organising tactics accordingly. When workers are organised and militant, legal shackles can be overcome.
So while the legislation must be resisted, the bigger question is how the union movement shifts gears to tackle the heightened class war being waged by employers in collusion with the state. We need a frank debate – are traditional methods sufficient or do we need a fundamental rethink?
There are unions and rank and file groups taking bold steps to revive the strike weapon. These involve adopting flexible tactics that allow activists to outmanoeuvre legal obstacles.
The stakes are clear. If these attacks go unchallenged, the labour movement risks being reduced to toothless bystanders while working conditions and public services descend into freefall. Through ambitious organising matched by community solidarity, we can build the industrial power to Defend the Right to Strike.
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