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The title makes it seem deeply boring and minor: “Minimum Service Levels: Code of Practice on reasonable steps”. But the document released by the Government today represents the biggest state imposition on independent trade unions in decades.
Six sectors of public services in Britain – some of them privatised – will in the next month or so be subject to Minimum Service Levels. The list covers health services, fire and rescue services, education, transport, nuclear decommissioning, and border security.
What this means in practice is that when workers vote to strike in these sectors from now on, a significant proportion of them will be forced to come in – even if they voted to strike – or face the sack.
For most sectors so far – including transport and education – that figure is 40%. The Trades Union Congress estimates that five million workers are now affected by the workers’ rights clampdown, with many told to cross their own picket lines even if they vote to strike. They’ve branded the law a ‘dog’s dinner’ that will drag out disputes, and tie unions up in more red tape.
What makes the legislation particularly offensive is that unions will be forced to tell their members to come in to work if their employer demands it, during strike action, to meet the new minimum staffing levels. Bearing in mind that strikes often concern the dire understaffing of many public services today, it is viewed by many as a slap in the face. Or rather, being made to slap their own faces.
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The new Code of Practice is a convoluted mess which requires unions to instruct their members to defy strike actions they democratically voted for – making a drastic shift in the government’s approach to industrial relations.
Unions must now navigate a complex web of requirements, pushing them to act against their members’ interests and their own principles. Members will be told to break their own strikes, or face the sack. Unions will be told to break their own strikes, or face hefty fines.
Imagine the scenario: NHS workers, having voted to strike, are then told by their union to turn up for work. Many stand firm in their convictions and refuse to cross the picket line. Others might simply call in sick.
In this very likely scenario, they risk termination of employment without any legal protection.
In this environment, the likelihood of resolving disputes quickly and amicably dwindles rapidly.
Unions face another burden – being told to appoint supervisors at every picket line: another layer of bureaucracy to an already strained system. These supervisors are expected to enforce the crossing of picket lines by workers who’ve been told to come in.
Union officials will have to be condemned by their own unions, or face legal action, for encouraging strike participation by those workers who face orders to come in.
This directive – deliberately, not doubt – will sow division within unions. But it also erodes the very purpose of picketing, to present a united front against perceived injustices, to counterbalance bosses’ power with workers’ voices.
The past decade has seen a raft of anti-union measures passed. The Lobbying (or Gagging) Act restricted their influence in politics. Anti-protest laws have clamped down on their ability to protest. And ministers tried to allow agency workers to break strikes – a move that was recently overturned by the courts, having been rushed through with little consultation.
Minimum service levels will not lead to better public services. Instead, they’ll toxify already strained industrial relations.
The new Code provides a ‘helpful’ draft letter – written by Government – for unions to send to their members, instructing them to break their strikes.
Where are the so-called Conservative libertarians? As usual when it comes to issues of dissent, the protection of a free civil society, they are silent. They prefer to talk about privatisation instead.
Unions will resist this to the fullest extent possible, and rightly so. The TUC has announced a dedicated Congress to discuss the next stage of campaigning against the anti-strike laws, on December 9.
Labour, for its part, has pledged to scrap Minimum Service Levels, a commitment unions will hold Sir Keir Starmer to. In the meantime, the Act will no doubt be hauled through the courts to face the question: when does a right become so eroded, it simply ceases to exist in practice?
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