On Monday 22 May, with trade unionists demonstrating outside parliament, Tory MPs voted the anti-strike ‘Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill’ through the House of Commons, meaning that is set to become law within weeks. Fire, transport, health, education, border security, and nuclear decommissioning will be affected. However, as Onay Kasab, speaking for Unite the Union, declared to the crowds outside, the law is not only “undemocratic” but will prove to be “unworkable”.
The last year has shown a new generation why the right to strike is vital. Workers have suffered the biggest fall in living standards in over half a century, and strikes have been the only way on offer to counter that trend. The result has been the highest level of strikes in thirty years.
Had the Trades Union Congress (TUC) coordinated all the strikes, and built for a 24-hour general strike against the new anti-union laws, it would have been possible to prevent the legislation even reaching the statute book. Now the task is to ensure that the minimum service legislation is not allowed to cut across workers’ struggle to defend public services, wages and conditions. If we do this the legislation will, in reality, be rendered null and void.
When the last raft of Tory anti-trade union laws was introduced in 2016, many trade union leaders concluded that the undemocratic hoops introduced would make widescale national action impossible. The last year has shown how wrong that was, with workers repeatedly smashing the legal turnout requirements in national ballots.
That legislation was introduced at a time when strike action was at a historic low. Today we are in a different world. The Tories are leading a zombie government, on its way out of office and consumed by their internal civil war, while the workers’ movement is on the rise.
Even from the capitalists’ point of view, introducing new anti-union legislation in that situation is rash to the extreme. Fear that workers will defy the new laws, and then also begin to defy the existing undemocratic anti-union laws, is the main reason that the House of Lords attempted to gut the legislation of most of its repressive content. This short-sighted Tory Party seems, however, to have put virtually all of it back in.
Nonetheless, the legislation is extremely loosely worded. It is left to the minister to specify the “minimum service” that must legally continue to function during a strike. However, the responsibility for issuing “work notices” to ensure this happens is left to the employers, who are not obligated but “may” do so.
The Scottish National Party First Minister Humza Yousaf told the Scottish TUC that the Scottish government will not be issuing work notices. It should be held to that commitment. Across Britain, the trade union movement should urgently demand that all local and regional authorities do the same. At the moment the Labour-run Welsh government has only said that it “will work with trades unions and employers” to “explore every possible option to avert any prospect of work notices being issued in Welsh public services”. The trade union movement in Wales should answer by demanding the Welsh Labour government immediately and publicly commit to the ‘option’ they clearly have of pledging not to issue work notices. The same is true for mayors and local councils up and down Britain.
If work notices are issued, trade unions locally will undoubtedly discuss their tactics to make sure strikes are as effective as possible. The reality is – given the hugely overstretched, understaffed state of public services, and the resulting high sickness levels due to stress – the minimum service levels which have been agreed between unions and employers during health strikes are often higher than normal staffing levels! This shows that it is health workers, not government ministers, who actually care about patient safety, but also that, in this situation, this legislation will not be able to prevent effective action. But the leadership of the trade union movement cannot just rely on the overstretched state of public services and the ingenuity of workers.
Speaking to the crowd outside parliament, Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT transport union, correctly said: “We will not obey work notices issued by the employer or issued by the government”. It is necessary to make clear that the whole workers’ movement will come to the defence of our class, taking action in solidarity – if necessary a 24-hour general strike – if unions are threatened with fines, or groups of workers are sacked.
Undoubtedly many national trade union leaders will hope they can just wait for a Labour government to repeal the laws. It is true that the Tory government is on its way out, with Starmer looking set to be the next prime minister. However, that may still be over a year away, and public sector workers need to be able to take effective action in defence of pay and conditions in the course of that year.
In addition, while millions will rightly cheer to get rid of the hated Tories, Starmer has made clear that he will not govern in the interests of the working-class majority, but will act to defend the capitalist system. Sharon Graham, general secretary of Unite, has rightly called on Labour to commit to nationalising the energy companies, but Starmer has made clear that his ‘New Labour on steroids’ will not be nationalising them or other privatised public services, including Royal Mail. On the contrary, they intend to increase the role of the private sector in the NHS and elsewhere.
In these circumstances, to test out Labour’s promise to repeal the new legislation, the TUC should demand that Starmer immediately pledges that an incoming Labour government will not only repeal the legislation but reverse any attacks carried out on the workers’ movement using it. If he was to say publicly now that his government would repeal the law and repay any trade unions fined under it, it would – in reality – make the legislation completely ineffective.
If Labour is not prepared to make this pledge nationally or to pledge to issue no “work notices” at the local and regional levels, the trade union movement will need to draw the necessary conclusions about what Starmer would do in office. Blair’s New Labour, which Starmer is emulating, did not repeal any of the previous Tory anti-union legislation.
Key to ensuring this legislation is repealed will be the fighting strength of our movement. Back in 1971 the Tory government introduced the anti-union Industrial Relations Act. It was repealed by Labour in 1974, but in reality, it was defeated in 1972 when, in response to the jailing of five dockers’ leaders under its auspices, a general strike began to develop from below, which resulted in their release. Those traditions have begun to be rebuilt in the last year and need to be developed further in the coming period.
A militant, fighting trade union movement can defeat this legislation, and will be vital to defending workers’ interests under both the Tories and a future Starmer-led Labour government. Given our current choice between politicians who defend the capitalist elite, it will also be vital for the workers’ movement to begin to build a political arm that can fight for our class’ interests in parliament.