Employment

Unions pledge to fight Rishi Sunak's new laws that 'completely undermine the purpose of striking'

With industrial disputes at their highest point in five years, Rishi Sunak plans to come down hard on trade unions

Rishi Sunak stands with his hands in front of him while giving a speech

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak says he wants "reasonable dialogue with the unions" in New Year speech. Image:Number 10 / Flickr

Faced with ballooning strike action that is crippling Britain’s most essential basic services, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has unveiled his plan to bring the industrial action to a close – by making striking for better pay and conditions futile.

The anti-trade union legislation would force workers to maintain a skeleton service in health sectors, rail, education, fire and border security, or face losing their jobs, the Times reports, and is seen as an attempt to prevent full disruption of essential services without having to engage with union demands.

Just days before, Sunak said he wanted “a reasonable dialogue with the unions about what’s responsible and fair for our country”, in his New Year speech laying out the government’s priorities for 2023.

The proposals have sparked anger among unions, which say they will take legal action to resist this attack on the fundamental democratic right to strike

Paul Nowak, who recently took over as head of the Trades Union Congress, responded to the news: “For the avoidance of doubt. If the govt [sic] attacks the right to strike, @The_TUC will resist them all the way. In Parliament. In the courts. And I have no doubt our unions & members will continue to win ballots & exercise what is an internationally recognised, fundamental right.”

The right to strike is recognised by the UN’s  International Labour Organization (ILO) as a fundamental right enshrined in international human rights and labour law, and that protecting it is necessary for a just, stable and democratic country. While it is not protected by law in the UK, strike action is legal if organised by a trade union according to conditions laid out in the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.

Jun Pang, policy and campaigns officer at human rights organisation Liberty said the proposals “completely undermine the purpose of striking, and will make it much harder for workers to exercise their basic rights”.

“In the face of an unprecedented cost of living crisis, it’s never been more important to protect everybody’s rights to freedom of association and assembly. We must fight back against this power grab and defend our right to organise and strike,” she continued. 

Nick Thomas-Symonds, shadow international trade secretary, argued that the proposals are a “wholly ineffective” method to address the current wave of strike action, claiming that the legislation would only “aggravate” the situation.

“What the government needs to be doing is sitting down around the table and doing the hard work of finding solutions,” he told BBC Newsnight.

Leader of the RMT, Mick Lynch said: “This is going to have to be resisted on the streets, through campaigns and through industrial action. We can’t do that alone. We need everyone with us.”

Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn highlighted that without strikes, workers may not have won equal pay (through the 1970 Equal Pay Act) and a shorter working day.

 “Strikes have secured victories for us all” he wrote on Twitter in response to the news. 

“Today, a worker’s fundamental right to withdraw their labour is under threat from arcane Tory legislation.”

The TUC had already reported the UK government to the UN’s labour standards organisation for undermining the right to strike by introducing a new law to allow companies to use agency workers to break strikes.

The government faces a High Court battle with the TUC, which has been granted permission for a legal challenge against the new agency worker regulations, with the judicial review expected to be heard in March.

The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future. 

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