If the Conservative leadership frontrunner gets her way and imposes new laws on trade unions it won’t stop wildcat and unofficial strikes, warn union sources 

The right to bargain collectively will exist only on paper if Conservative leadership favourite Liz Truss introduces ‘minimum service levels’ on critical national infrastructure including transport, a leading human rights group has warned. 

It follows a recent move by ministers to allow agency workers to be brought in to break strikes – a policy campaigners have warned will threaten safety. The policy was introduced using ‘Henry VIII’ powers – meaning that there was little effective scrutiny or a full vote on the proposal.

Truss has pledged that new laws targeting workers would be introduced in Parliament within a month of her taking office. This comes amid a wave of transport strikes affecting National Rail and Transport for London, as well as fresh disputes at Royal Mail, the Felixstowe port, and more over jobs and pay as inflation bites.

The Foreign Secretary has also promised to raise ballot thresholds from 40 to 50%, meaning that strikes couldn’t take place unless half of all members voted in favour of them – effectively treating non-voters as votes against. Only a handful of MPs fit this requirement in their own elections. 

It has raised fears that workers will simply bypass union laws altogether. This month has already seen unofficial walkouts of workers at Amazon’s Tilbury distribution centre, after the company offered a paltry pay offer and refused to recognise the GMB union. 

One union source told Byline Times that Truss’ ideas were “just ludicrous, toy town stuff”.

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“How does she propose to implement minimum service levels on transport?” they said. “It would mean cooperation with the unions. They’ve voted for strike action – but now some of you have to go to work. 

“You’ll get more unofficial action… Minimum service means the end of legal effective industrial action in this country. It would be chaos for industry. The current two weeks’ notice is a process and is more likely to end in a deal.

“Straightjacket people and they won’t sit there and take it. It will be wildcat stuff beyond politics.” 

Ben Sellers, director of the Institute of Employment Rights, said that anti-union laws have already got far stricter in recent months. “The use of agency workers to break strikes is a fairly major intervention that goes back to previous failed attempts,” he told Byline Times. “It’s quite radical, and they’ve failed to get that through in the past.”

He said that other laws targeting noisy protests have been justified by ministers because of “disruptive protests” such as those of environmental groups. “But the point of any protest is to be disruptive.”

“Legislation has been tightened so much around the right to strike, the legal avenues are becoming much more difficult,” Sellers said. “In that circumstance, you can see unofficial action taking place. Even just a few months ago we would have thought a general strike was far down the agenda. Ultimately, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has to organise that, but there’s a desire to link some of these [current] disputes.”

The right to strike is fundamental and is guaranteed by Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is incorporated into UK law through the Human Rights Act – legislation which is likely to be replaced by the current Bill of Rights Bill. 

Charlie Whelton, spokesperson for the human rights group Liberty, told Byline Times: “The new agency worker policy, allowing them to take the place of striking workers is something that was previously illegal, and was an important protection we have – both for the right to strike and freedom of association, expression and assembly. If you’re letting agency workers replace strikers that will make the effectiveness of industrial relations weaker.”

He said that Liz Truss’ proposals requiring 50% of the total electorate to vote in favour for strike action sets a “really high bar”.

“Look at any election – the winning party isn’t getting anywhere near that bar,” he added. “In the Brexit Referendum, the turnout for that was 70-75% so you’re not getting a 50% threshold on that. It will just outright block strikes.” 

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He believes the extent of overreach is such that “unions’ internal rules will be decided by the Government” and “I wouldn’t be surprised if people had a look at the feasibility of [a legal] challenge”. However problems present themselves on this front too.

“They’ve been losing court cases so they’ve brought in the Judicial Review and Courts Bill to make it harder,” Whelton said. “They’ve been rapped by the Electoral Commission so they brought in the Elections Bill. They’ve been rapped over human rights, so they bring in the Bill of Rights Bill. They’re faced with protests so they bring in the Policing Act.” 

He believes the moves will make striking illegal in all but name and that minimum service levels are “essentially attempting to remove the right to strike”.

“What you’re left with is something you couldn’t properly call the right to strike,” he told Byline Times. “The cumulative effect is just to completely rob workers of their key tool in ensuring an employer will respond to their concerns… When you put this stuff together, what is the incentive for an employer to engage with their workers? Why would they even bother?

“If you can just shove in agency workers, have minimum services, and a very hard ballot threshold… they’re just not going to listen to concerns at a time when the rising cost of living means people can’t get by.” 

The next TUC Congress this September is likely to see fiery discussion about the idea of a general strike and resisting new anti-union laws. 

P&O Ferries owner DP World reported record profits of £600 million in the first half of this year, shortly after replacing 800 staff with cheaper agency workers in a fire-and-rehire move. Labour peer Professor Lord Prem Sikka told Byline Times that this kind of action will be far easier now that the agency worker law has been imposed. 

“[Wildcat strikes] are one possibility,” he said. “So far, despite all the obstacles [ministers have] put in, they’re not managed to completely emasculate them. There are very high turnout requirements and majority requirements, but they’re still surviving. 

“So the Tories are constantly finding ways of weakening employment rights. Now we have real cuts in wages leading to recession. If employment rights are so weakened, how do you sustain an economy? People’s disposable incomes will be gone.”

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TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said that “the right to withdraw labour is a fundamental right” and that the new laws allowing agency staff to fill in for striking workers “are an attack on workers and their freedom to take collective action”.

“Instead of taking pot-shots at working people and their unions, the Conservative leadership candidates should come up with a plan to get wages rising across the economy,” she told Byline Times. “That’s how to deal with the cost of living emergency.”

Labour MP Nadia Whittome said the latest wave of strikes taking place this week “show that working-class people are not prepared to stand by while their living standards collapse”.

“Liz Truss’ response, to take away long established trade union rights rather than tackle the cost of living crisis, is a despicable attack on all workers,” she said. “If she attempts to go through with this plan, I expect massive resistance from the trade union movement and an increase in wildcat strikes, the beginnings of which we are already seeing in traditionally under-unionised workplaces like Amazon warehouses.”

Josiah Mortimer is a freelance political journalist

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