Employment

Union leaders vow to resist Tories' 'unworkable and undemocratic' new anti-strike laws

The anti-strike laws are coming into force. What will they mean for you?

Protesters hold up flags and placards at a protest in London on October 1, 2022.

Many unions have been on strike for 18 months, on and off Image: Niklas Halle'n/AFP via Getty Images

Unions will defy “authoritarian” new anti-strike laws that require them to tell their own members to cross picket lines, leaders have pledged.

For 18 months, Brits have been striking in record numbers. From nurses to teachers, from rail drivers to civil servants, employees in dozens of sectors have banded together to demand better pay and conditions.

But a change to the law is about to make industrial action a whole lot more difficult. The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 is set to come into effect for hundreds of thousands of workers.

Change a Big Issue vendor’s life this Christmas by purchasing a Winter Support Kit. You’ll receive four copies of the magazine and create a brighter future for our vendors through Christmas and beyond.

The legislation forces workers in certain sectors – health, rail, education, fire and border security sectors – to maintain a skeleton service. Those who refuse could lose their jobs.

It’s effectively a “ban on strikes”, warns Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack.

“The government is seeking to ban workers from exercising their democratic right to strike,” he said.

“Workers’ rights have been stripped away and attacked over the last forty years – but this is one of the most pernicious laws to date. We must resist this attack on working people. “

Under the act, unions bear responsibility to identify and notify which staff should work during a strike. If they fail to do so, employers can sue them – meaning unions are required to actively encourage their members to break their own strikes.

But at a “once in a generation” congress this Saturday (9 December), the Trade Union Congress pledged to resist this requirement – and agreed that they “will not rest” until the “draconian” anti-strike laws are repealed.

“This could mean a wave of strikes next year, up to and during the next general election,” speculated Wrack.

What is the strikes legislation?

Last year, more than four million work days were lost to strike action. Soaring inflation and stagnating wages have left workers with no choice, unions claim – but the Conservatives take a different view.

In June, the government passed the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) bill. Under the law, employers may issue a “work notice” before a strike, specifying which employees it deems necessary to maintain a minimum level of operation.

Regulations for the ambulance service, the rail network and border security passed the House of Lords on Wednesday (6 December). Some 40% of passenger services in rail must be maintained, while border security must be “no less effective” than it normally is.

Do we need the anti-strikes legislation?

“The ability to strike needs to be balanced with ensuring people continue to have access to essential services,” business minister Kevin Hollinrake said last month.

Experts beg to differ. Strikes have not led to the implosion of essential services, say Manuela Galetto and Deborah Dean, co-directors at the Industrial Relations Research Unit at Warwick Business School.

“The first thing to ask is: ‘Do we need it [the act]?’ During the strikes in the transport sector, hospitals or schools of the past year, we have not seen ‘life threatening’ reductions of these services, thanks to the voluntary agreements between employers, workers and their unions,” they say. “So the answer is ‘not really’.”

Indeed, strikes in essential services are already regulated in the UK – previously by an independent judicial framework made up of labour courts and tribunals.

“This bill essentially takes that decision [about what counts as a minimum service] away from the independent judicial sphere and puts it in the hands of the government,” explains Jonathan Preminger, senior lecturer in management, employment and organisation at Cardiff Business School.

What happens if workers breach work notices?

The strict requirements could make it hard for the workers in the most tightly regulated industries to strike at all.

“Most seriously, an employee who gets a work notice cannot refuse to work, or they lose protection from unfair dismissal. There is no direct right to strike in UK law, only time-limited protection from breach of employment contract,” explain Galetto and Dean.

The act is the latest in a series of laws that have eroded the power of organised labour.  

The Trade Union Act 2016 imposed rules on paper-only ballots and strict notice periods for industrial action, which severely limited the capacity of unions to call for action. And over the last year the government has tried to reverse the ban on agency workers replacing striking employees, but this was ruled unlawful by the High Court.

Such laws try to pit the public against unions, Preminger explained.

“Laws designed to limit collective action and weaken organised labour have often tried to emphasise this idea that unions are a nuisance to ‘good, hard-working citizens’ who just want to get to work on time, or just want their rubbish collected, or just want their aging parents to be properly nursed,” he explained. “This bill is part of that tradition.”

How will unions resist the new regulations?

When the [new anti-strikes] law was being drafted, the government’s own “impact assessment” showed that a clear consequence could be “a general increase in tension between unions and employers” and an expectation of “adverse impacts in the long term, such as an increased frequency of strikes for each dispute”.

“Given this [impact assessment] it seems that the government is more interested in silencing discontent rather than addressing issues at the core of the disputes: worsening employment conditions, low pay and the cost of living crisis,” Galetto and Dean say.

How unions ought to resist was debated at last weekend’s TUC congress. Unions agreed to resist the demand to issue work notices and use “any means necessary” to defeat the laws. Ultimately, the resistance is likely to involve more strikes.

“Make no mistake. These new Conservative anti-strike laws are unworkable, undemocratic and likely in breach of international law,” said TUC General Secretary Paul Nowak.

“They represent an unprecedented attack on the right to strike – and they’ll poison industrial relations and drag out disputes.”

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
'It's an epidemic': 1.4 million workers trapped in insecure jobs are stuck in precarious rented homes
insecure work and insecure rented homes impact life decisions
Employment

'It's an epidemic': 1.4 million workers trapped in insecure jobs are stuck in precarious rented homes

Millions of Brits think their jobs are 'meaningless.' Could a four-day working work week fix that?
Four-day working week

Millions of Brits think their jobs are 'meaningless.' Could a four-day working work week fix that?

'What are we going to do?': Misery for commuters as train strikes continue
Train strikes

'What are we going to do?': Misery for commuters as train strikes continue

British farmers demand universal basic income to prevent bankruptcy in wake of Brexit
Farmer mental health
Universal Basic Income

British farmers demand universal basic income to prevent bankruptcy in wake of Brexit

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know