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Workers will “find a way” around new anti-strike laws by calling in sick or ending the use of overtime, the former leader of the Trades Union Congress has told Byline Times.
The warning from Baroness Frances O’Grady comes as the Minimum Service Levels Bill – which will determine minimum levels of staffing in key sectors such as transport, health and education – comes close to becoming law.
Last week, members of the House of Lords voted to scrap parts of the bill that would see key workers eligible for the sack if they crossed their own picket lines when strike action was called under the new rules.
The TUC and other unions have branded the legislation the “Sack Key Workers Bill” amid fears thousands of nurses, teachers and train staff could face being fired for not going to work despite having voted for strike action.
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Unions could also face being sued by employers under the bill if they did not tell their own members to cross picket lines and turn up for work when a so-called “work notice” determining minimum staffing levels during a strike had been set.
Frances O’Grady told Byline Times: “In my experience when people feel they have a just cause they will find a way. In fact, the government’s own impact assessment suggested that workers could just mount more frequent strikes.”
Asked if some strikers would stage unofficial walk-outs if the right to strike is further limited, O’Grady said: “There could be more action short of strikes – ‘work-to-rule’ and so on – which from an employer’s point of view can be more disruptive. Given that the public sector increasingly depends on unpaid overtime, and goodwill – if all of that gets withdrawn, that can be harder for an employer to plan for.”
And she raised the prospect of staff calling in sick en masse on strike days where there was a minimum service levels order issued.
“You can’t rule out people calling in sick. And I did specifically ask the Minister, about whether workers who had been named in a work notice, if they called in sick on the day, could they be sacked? And after several times of me asking, he confirmed that they would not be sacked.”
“When people have had 13 years of real pay cuts…it seems to me that you can’t just order people in. It is a fundamental freedom to withdraw your labour in protest against overwork and to pay and under-staffing services. And people will just find other ways to express their feelings.”
Pressed on whether the “mass sicky” tactic could become widespread, she added: “I have great faith in the ingenuity of working people…You can’t stop people from seeking to exercise fundamental freedom. Otherwise, what kind of society would we become?”
“Are they really going to fight workers in the middle of a recruitment and retention crisis? They’re going to create martyrs.”
Ministers are attempting to over-rule the Lords vote stopping frontline workers from being sacked for breaching so-called work notices.
O’Grady said: “The government says on the one hand, ‘No, nobody’s gonna get sacked”. In which case – why give employers the power to do just that?
“It will be throwing a tank full of petrol onto a fire, because I can’t imagine any of the unions concerned standing back and letting go of the fact workers could be sacked for following their conscience and refusing to cross a picket line.”
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Unions will be compelled to tell their members to cross their own picket lines – an unprecedented state of affairs. “If an individual refuses to cross a picket line for reasons of personal conscience they can be sacked. But also, if the union fails to follow these undefined “reasonable demands”, then all workers lose protection against automatic protection against unfair dismissal. And that is extraordinary.”
Some employers are also understood to be concerned about the new law. NHS Providers have said they don’t want this power. “The rail employers say it will only make matters worse. It’s unworkable,” the Labour peer added.
The International Labour Organisation has been taking a “keen interest” in considering whether sacking workers for taking strike action is in contravention of international labour standards.
We still don’t know the content of the legislation as most of the detail will be imposed by ministers using so-called secondary powers, without full parliamentary scrutiny, after the law has been passed. “The Secretary of State has been handed all this power without accountability,” O’Grady said.
Some of the consultation findings on the bill are not due until the autumn. “I suspect that they’re sitting on them because they know, as we know, that employers don’t want this and when they have said so. They didn’t even ask the question, do you want the power to sack individual workers who don’t comply?” she added.
The bill is currently in “ping pong” – a war of wills between the House of Lords and the Commons over how to amend the bill. Ministers are fighting all the successful Lords amendments and are likely to override them using their Commons majority.
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