Anti-strike bill: The UK government is obsessed with suppression of workers

The anti-strike bill is part of a wider pattern of anti-democratic and anti-worker legislation

Nurses strike

The UK government is obsessed with suppression of workers and considers their aspiration for democracy and higher standard of living to be a barrier to the creation of a corporate-fascist state.

Economic repression is all too visible. The average real wage is now less than what it was in 2007.  By 2020/21, some 13.4 million people were living in poverty. Public services have been cut and some 7.2 million people in England are waiting for hospital appointment. Austerity has killed 335,000 people during the period 2012-219 alone.

Against a background of falling living standards and hardships, workers have taken industrial action to secure higher wages. Calls for industrial action are subject to the requirements of the Trade Union Act 2016. Only where a ballot produces a majority in favour of industrial action and at least 50% of those eligible to vote have voted that the action is considered to be lawful. For important public services, at least 40% of those eligible to vote must have voted to support the action. In sharp contrast, companies who can close or shift operations without any vote by shareholders, creditors, local communities or employees.

Despite the strict balloting requirements, workers have shown determination to secure higher wages. The government’s response is to enact the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses (Amendment) Regulations 2022 and empower employers to fire striking workers without any consultation and replace them with cheaper agency staff.

The latest attack on workers and their families is the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, currently going through the House of Commons. It initially applies to public and private sector workers delivering health, fire and rescue, education, transport, decommissioning of nuclear installations and management of radioactive waste and spent fuel and border security. It effectively bans strikes and conscripts employees to provide ‘minimum’ service levels (MSL) during strikes.

MSLs are already provided by trade unions. For example, during the recent strike by NHS workers emergency services continued. Such agreements have been negotiated by employers and trade unions, but the Bill changes that. It authorises Ministers to set MSLs at any level from 1% to 100%. MSLs can be set at higher levels and thus totally negate the strike and bargaining power of workers. In sectors where there is chronic shortage of workers, such as healthcare and fire services, a higher MSL threshold will mean that most workers can’t withdraw labour and will be forced to work anti-social hours.

The MSL regulations will be approved by parliament but crucially the Bill does not permit parliament to amend them. So, ministers will make laws and parliament can’t check the abuse of power.

Following the Ministerial decision on MSLs, employers are given the sole right to select the workers for delivery of that level of service. These could include shop stewards and worker representatives. Trade unions may object but the final decision rests with the employer. The employers are required to hand the “work notice” containing the names of selected workers to the relevant trade union who in-turn is required to order the selected workers, including those who may not be members of that union, to cross the picket-line. Those refusing face dismissal without compensation. There is no right of appeal.

If the union fails to take reasonable steps to ensure that all members of the union who are identified in the work notice comply with the notice, then the strike becomes unlawful and all strikers can be dismissed. The union also becomes liable to pay damages to employers for the loss suffered. Those refusing to pay will have their assets confiscated and their leaders may eventually be imprisoned.

The Bill sours industrial relations and is unworkable. It destroys the bargaining power of workers to secure better wages and working conditions and leaves them at the mercy of employers. There is no incentive for employers to negotiate. The Bill requires trade unions to police workers and break strikes. It imposes obligations and penalties on trade unions, but none on employers.  

The right to withdraw labour is a crucial human right, but is not part of any specific UK law. It is based upon international treaties and agreements. For example Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which has no links with membership of the European Union, states that “everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests”. The Bill circumvents that. The government wants to withdraw from ECHR.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) is a UN agency devoted to promotion of human and labour rights. The UK is a signatory to its mandate. The right to strike is protected by ILO Convention 87 (on Freedom of Association and the Right to Organise). Upon leaving the EU, the UK affirmed its commitment to that right. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that the ILO has backed the Bill, but the ILO chief denied Sunak’s claim and said “he was “very worried about workers having to accept situations” due to being faced with the threat of losing their jobs.

To legitimise the draconian UK Bill, Sunak said that France, Italy and Spain have MSLs. He failed to mention that in these countries worker participation in a strike does not lead to dismissal.

The UK is on a slippery slope to becoming a corporate-fascist state. Even before the anti-strike Bill, it has slid-down in the Index of Censorship. It is now in the third-tier and classified as “partially open” country. It ranks below countries such as Botswana, Chile, Israel, Romania, Senegal and Tunisia. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 has criminalised noisy protests. The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021 enables Ministers to authorise the state and non-state actors to commit criminal acts with immunity, including murder, torture and rape, as long as they are “in the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom”.

There is a warning from history. In 1933, German dictator Adolf Hitler saw worker resistance as a barrier to the creation of a corporate-fascist state and targeted trade unions. Collective bargaining and the right to strike were outlawed. Workers lost the right to negotiate wage increases and improvements in working conditions. Trade union leaders were arrested, their funds confiscated and strikes declared illegal. This intolerance of dissent and people’s rights paved the way to the bloodiest period in human history. Will history repeat itself?

Prem Sikka is an Emeritus Professor of Accounting at the University of Essex and the University of Sheffield, a Labour member of the House of Lords, and Contributing Editor at Left Foot Forward.

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