A minimum service agreement – or a ban on strikes?

By Keith Ewing, president of the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom

Having tried and failed to ban rail strikes in the Trade Union Act 2016 by inflated participation thresholds of 40 per cent, the Tories are now proposing to tighten the screws still further, with a manifesto commitment to require that “a minimum service operates during transport strikes.”

It is not clear whether this is intended to apply to all transport strikes, or to rail strikes only, the passage in the manifesto acknowledging that while “rail workers deserve a fair deal,” “it is not fair to let the trade unions undermine the livelihoods of others.” No mention of course of the unfairness of employers imposing driver-only trains.

Whether it applies to rail workers or all transport workers, what is also not clear is how this would operate in practice. It has been left to The Times to explain that minimum service agreements “would set out in advance the numbers and the nature of staff who would remain at work in the event of a strike.”

But what happens if the parties are unable to agree on the minimum service to be provided? Here the Murdoch mouthpiece reports that if the union refused to sign the agreement “the action would be declared unlawful and rail companies could obtain an injunction to stop the strikes.”

This suggests that the rail companies are to demand the service to be run, and unions to act as their own strike-breakers. So while Labour is committed to respect the rule of law and to bring British law back into line with international labour standards, the Tories are planning to continue with Thatcher’s drive into non-compliance with the nation’s legal obligations.

At the heart of this proposal is power and control:

• Who gets to control what working conditions should be?
• Who gets to control when working conditions can be changed?
• Who gets to control whether workers can resist employer demands?
• Who gets to control how workers are permitted to resist?

The answer in the rule of international law that Labour is pledged to uphold is “not the employer.” In a free society, workers must have the power to resist the bullying power of the boss, and the power to do so in a way that is effective. It is not for employers to impose limits on the industrial action their own conduct has provoked.

As other right-wing governments have discovered to their cost, disregard of the rule of law comes at a price. Most recently, in 2015 the Supreme Court of Canada intervened to strike down legislation from Saskatchewan that allowed employers to ban strikes on the spurious ground that the workers in question were engaged in an essential service.

Not only did the Court slap down a provincial government for arrogantly over-reaching itself, in doing so it took the opportunity to rewrite Canadian law by reading into the constitution a right to strike based on ILO principles. These principles do not permit an employer unilaterally to decide what is a minimum service requirement.

If The Times has correctly reported the Tory plans, what is proposed is not minimum service agreements, but minimum service requirements. There is a world of difference between the two, as legal proceedings in this country would soon expose. Rail unions are right to angry: this is not a qualification but a prohibition.

The answer to this nonsense of course is to address the reasons why the strikes are necessary in the first place: private ownership of private utilities, and public service driven by private profit that has helped to create in the United Kingdom what the British Academy has described as the most extreme form of capitalism in the world.

Alongside that we have trade unions shackled by legislation, with employers empowered and emboldened by absent or ineffective labour laws. And passengers ripped off by inadequate services on expensive journeys. A responsible party would be concerned to address the causes of conflict not its consequences.

The United Kingdom is thus in danger of not only harbouring the most extreme forms of capitalism, but also the most coercive form of labour law in the developed world. It is why this election is so important, as the one with the greatest ideological clarity and with the greatest ideological implications since Thatcher won in 1979.

Only Labour’s radical programme for working life will protect us from the continuing disempowerment and commodification of workers. And only Labour will stop the slide in the direction of authoritarianism of which the Trade Union Act 2016 is an example, and the proposed Tory ban on rail strikes another important symbol.

This article originally appeared inboxed the Morning Star 3rd December.

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