On 10 January, the government introduced the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill or anti-strike Bill to Parliament. While the bill has some way to go as it makes its way through several readings and into the House of Lords, union members say that it the legislation is not necessary.
It’s become a top priority for prime minister Rishi Sunak and the government has said it is a necessary piece of legislation. However, trade union members have spoke up about their concerns that some union members would be required to continue working amid strike action if the legislation is passed.
The Bill, which has undergone its first reading before the House of Commons, sets out to ensure public sector services maintain a minimum safety level amid industrial action.
The Bill was introduced to parliament by secretary of state Grant Shapps and has received support from Sunak, chancellor of the exchequer Jeremy Hunt, home secretary Suella Braverman and secretary of state for health and social care Steve Barclay.
What are minimum safety levels?
Minimum safety levels (previously called minimum service requirements) are the levels of service the government expects to be provided amid periods of disruption. Minimum safety requirements are currently observed by workers and union members including ambulance workers, NHS staff and workers in fire and rail services.
In the Conservative government’s 2019 election manifesto, it was promised that legislation requiring a minimum level of service during strike action would be introduced.
The government is now seeking to extend this requirement to five other areas – the NHS, education, fire and rescue, border security and nuclear decommissioning.
To meet minimum staffing levels – which are yet to be determined – employers would be able to issue a ‘work notice’ outlining how many workers they need for a given shift.
The anti-strike Bill and human rights
Shapps said: “In my view the provisions of the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill are compatible with the Convention rights, under section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act 1998.”
There is no specific right to strike in UK law but there is the right to be a member of a trade union, which can legally call for its members to strike under certain conditions. Article 11 of the UK’s Human Rights Act protects the right to freedom of assembly and association, including the right to form trade unions.
However, there is a right to strike under international law. The UK has ratified the International Labour Organization’s 1949 Convention 98 on the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining, which maintains that nations should establish “national mechanisms which respect the right to organise in the workplace”.
Article 8 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, of which the UK is a signatory, establishes both the right to join a trade union and the right to strike, provided that it is done so in keeping with the law of the country the workers are in.
Under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, a trade union cannot induce “secondary action”. This means that if its members are on strike over a dispute with an employer, it cannot compel other members to strike against a different employer.
A 2014 ruling from the European Court of Human Rights held that this was justified interference in Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights in a case brought against the UK government by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT).
A wave of industrial action rides into 2023
As talks continue for some union members, Onay Kasab, lead national officer for Unite the Union, said the government had yet again missed an opportunity to settle pay disputes with healthcare workers.
BREAKING: Onay Kasab, lead national officer for Unite, says the government "have missed another opportunity" to avoid further strike action and calls talks with the health secretary today an "insult".
More here: https://t.co/EZGzR3NnYT
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— Sky News (@SkyNews) January 9, 2023
Workers across a range of sectors will continue scheduled strikes into 2023, with many unions saying they will announce strikes shortly.
- The RMT has been holding strikes since last June. While there are no further strike dates scheduled, the dispute is “ongoing”.
- Teachers went on strike in Scotland between 10 and 11 January this year with potentially more to come.
- Driving examiners will hold rolling strikes until 16 January (affecting practical tests only).
- The Royal College of Nurses (RCN) has announced further strikes on 18 and 19 January. The RCN in Scotland says it will also announce strike dates soon.
- Some ambulance staff in England will stage a further strike, on 23 January.
- Firefighters are being balloted on potential strike action over pay. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) says the current 5% pay offer is “derisory”. The ballot closes on 30 January.
The General Secretary of The Trade Union Congress (TUC) Paul Nowak backed the strikes. He stated:
“Life is different if you don’t depend on our NHS or state schools. If you don’t need to travel by train or bus to get to work. If you swish through airports in private lounges. If you’ve never worried about losing your job, or paying the rent. Their Britain isn’t broken. Ours is.”
Some disputes have been settled following strike action
In 2022, workers from a range of industries went on strike over pay and working conditions, including criminal barristers in England and Wales, who accepted a 15% pay rise following strike action.
2022 also saw disputes resolved with:
- 2,000 Arriva bus drivers in London who got a pay rise of 11%.
- Some BT workers who agreed to a pay package worth 16%.
- Health workers who are members of Unite and Unison in Scotland, including some paramedics, nurses, midwives and support staff, who accepted a 7.5% pay increase.
A YouGov survey conducted at the beginning of the year found that the majority of the public support nurses and ambulance workers striking but support drops by approximately 20pp when it comes to railway, Royal Mail and border forces workers.