Minimum Service Levels Bill: the culmination of 40 years of anti-union laws?

By Adrian Weir, Assistant Secretary, Campaign For Trade Union Freedom

The Government, as part of its general authoritarian drift, is proceeding with what it hopes will be the knockout blow for striking unions and workers in public services with its Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill. It would therefore repay us to look in some detail at this draconian Bill, but this turns out to be very difficult as it’s only a page and a half long.

Firstly, it’s clear that the Bill is a massive power grab by the Secretary of State. All power will rest in that office holder to determine minimum service levels in the six services identified:

* border security
* fire and rescue
* health
* nuclear decommissioning
* public transport
* school education.

Given that the Secretary of State and the civil servants will have no real knowledge of the industries concerned, nor any inclination to learn, we may suppose that the minimum service level will be set at so high a level as to render any strike completely and utterly ineffective, limited to a non-observable protest by the few members who will be allowed to continue with strike action.

We don’t know where these minimums may be set but learning from the past we know that the prison officers’ union, POA, whose members have been denied a right to strike for thirty years was offered a way out of that particular Tory law by agreeing to a minimum service level but set at one hundred percent.

Needless to say this offer was not accepted by the union but indicative perhaps of where we may be headed, workers will retain a right to strike in these six sectors but will be denied the opportunity to exercise that right, most having to go to work to provide the minimum service set at a preposterously high level.

The Bill also proposes to give to the Secretary of State so-called Henry VIII powers in that any Regulations made under the terms of the Bill may ‘amend, repeal or revoke’ primary legislation passed by the Houses of Parliament and also the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Senedd. Regulations are of course mostly laid before Parliament and seldom voted on.

Secondly, once the Secretary of State has determined the level of the minimum service the employer in the sector concerned, after “consultation” with the union, will issue a “work notice” identifying the individual workers who will have to work to provide the minimum service. Any worker who declines to attend work may be dismissed and will lose any protection to issue proceedings for unfair dismissal.

It is not inconceivable that an employer may identify shop stewards, branch officers and other union reps in the “work notice” and require that these reps go to work, crossing any picket line and break the strike which they would have voted for and we may assume has met all other legal requirements.

Next, the union is required to take “reasonable steps” to ensure that its members identified in the “work notice” comply with it and attend their work. Should a union not take these “reasonable steps” it would lose its immunity from being sued and will be liable for damages claims in the courts. The amount of statutory damages that a union may be required to pay an employer has recently been increased by the Government.

To avoid appearing in court a union could find itself in the impossible position of being obliged to take these undefined “reasonable steps” against its own activists who were leading the strike in the first place.

We should remember that the authoritarian streak that runs all through this Government has been shown in Sunak himself. In response to the strike wave that has continued through the summer, autumn and into the winter he has not sought to resolve the root causes but has reached for the authoritarian option so favoured by Margaret Thatcher.

As well as the current minimum service levels that the Government is proceeding with Sunak also considered either a ban on union membership in certain of these services, as Thatcher did at GCHQ in 1984 (since repealed) or a ban on strike action in certain of these services, as Thatcher’s successor John Major did with the prison service in 1994 (still in force).

We must resist this move to a more authoritarian state.

Last year was the fiftieth anniversary of the Pentonville Five when mass resistance by organised workers eventually defeated the Conservative’s Industrial Relations Act. 2023 won’t be a replay but that will be the way to go. When the first shop steward is dismissed for refusing to comply with a “work notice” will be the time for all sections of our movement to mobilise against this pernicious law.

This article appeared in Education For Tomorrow, No. 4, Spring, 2023.

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