The government’s new anti-strike legislation, which aims to enforce “minimum service levels” in key public sectors including the NHS and schools, has met with fierce opposition from unions and criticism from experts.
The proposed Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill is being seen as a direct attack on workers’ fundamental human rights and an affront to parliamentary democracy. The Bill will apply to strikes in six essential sectors: health services, fire and rescue services, education services, transport services, nuclear decommissioning, and border security. These are the same six services identified in the previous Trade Union Act 2016, which already imposed strict requirements for strike mandates to have the support of at least 40% of those eligible to vote as well as a majority of those voting.
The Bill goes even further, however, by removing the requirement for minimum service levels (MSLs) to be negotiated by agreement between trade unions and employers, and instead gives complete discretion to the Secretary of State, Grant Shapps, to set the MSLs in each of the six services. This means that the MSLs can be set at such a high level that any strike will be rendered largely ineffective.
Furthermore, the Bill is a worrying symptom of how the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has become not only the friend of employers but also an instrument of the coercive state. Despite the government’s claims of respecting the right to strike, the Bill effectively renders the right to strike to be nothing more than a right to make a meaningless protest. The Bill also includes disproportionate sanctions to ensure obedience to the will of the state, further undermining workers’ rights.
Under the new law, bosses in health, education, fire, ambulance, rail and nuclear commissioning will be able to sue unions and sack employees if minimum levels are not met. Union members who refuse to work under the minimum service requirement could lose their jobs. The new law will also back employers bringing an injunction to prevent strikes or seeking damages afterwards if they go ahead.
This Bill is a dangerous and undemocratic attempt to silence workers and deny them their basic human rights. It must be opposed by all those who value democracy and workers’ rights. Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition, has pledged to repeal the anti-trade union legislation if Labour forms the next government.