'The right to strike is a fundamental British freedom. Strikes are what won workers the 8-hour working day and equal pay for women.'
Paul Nowak is the General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress
Over the past few weeks, hundreds of thousands of public sector workers have been forced to take strike action.
I’ve spoken to, and stood on picket lines with, paramedics, teachers, civil servants, physios and so many others – people who have devoted their entire working lives to keeping our vital public services going.
Our dedicated public servants are the backbone of the country. But in this cost-of-living emergency, many of the key workers we all rely on have been pushed to breaking point.
Just a couple of weeks ago I spent a morning in Newcastle visiting primary schools to see the impact of this government’s failure to fund our public services properly. Headteachers, teachers, teaching assistants, and support staff are doing an incredible job, even though staff shortages, underfunding, and crumbling buildings hamper their mission to educate and nurture pupils.
On top of this funding failure, public sector pay has been cut or frozen – in real terms – for the last 13 years. The average public servant is still earning £200 a month less – when you factor inflation – than they did in 2010.
The impact is devastating. Nurses are having to choose between heating and eating. Hospitals are having to set up foodbanks for staff. Firefighters are telling us they are cycling miles to work because they cannot afford to put fuel in their cars.
And every week dedicated frontline workers are quitting our schools, hospitals and emergency services because they just cannot take any more.
Many are exhausted. Many are simply not being paid enough to live on. Morale is on the floor.
That’s why public sector workers are taking industrial action – often for the first time in their working lives.
Nurses and paramedics know that the staffing crisis facing our NHS cannot go on for any longer. They are striking not just for fair pay and better working conditions, but for patient safety.
It’s a similar story in schools. Teachers know we cannot afford to lose any more experienced teachers from our classrooms. Teachers are striking not just for pay, but to protect the future of our children’s education.
But instead of sitting down with unions to negotiate for fairer pay, the Conservative government is trying to steamroller its draconian Minimum Service Levels Bill, widely known as the “anti-strikes bill”, through Parliament.
This week, the Bill is back in the House of Lords for its second reading. If passed, new laws will let employers sack public sector workers for taking part in legal strike action. This is unethical, unworkable, and almost certainly illegal.
And crucially it will likely poison industrial relations and exacerbate disputes rather than help resolve them.
Ministers applauded health and social care workers during the pandemic and promised they would be rewarded once it was over. But with this anti-strikes bill, they are going from clapping to sacking.
The government should be sitting down with unions and trying to resolve ongoing disputes with workers who are simply asking for a fairer deal in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis.
But instead Tory ministers are investing far more time and energy in railroading this Bill through Parliament – shortcutting the normal democratic process.
Bills are usually subject to weeks of scrutiny by MPs in a parliamentary committee. But this bill was rushed through its House of Commons committee, report stage and third reading in just one day. And MPs voted on the bill without fully understanding its consequences – because ministers have not yet published their impact assessment.
It is clear that this bill could worsen industrial relations – and ministers have admitted as much already. Last year, ministers published an impact assessment for an earlier draft of the bill that applied only to the transport sector. It cautioned that minimum service levels could poison industrial relations, leading to more frequent and prolonged industrial action.
This bill is designed for one reason: to undermine the bargaining power of workers and their unions in disputes over pay and conditions. Key workers who vote for legal strike action may be required to work on strike days and face dismissal if they do not.
The bill will begin its passage through the Lords this week. Peers will be allowed more time than MPs to scrutinise it and debate amendments. But no amendment could salvage this legislation. A watered-down attack on a basic human right is still an attack on a basic human right.
The right to strike is a fundamental British freedom. Strikes are what won workers the 8-hour working day and equal pay for women.
And even when workers do not go on strike, the right to strike gives them power. It brings employers to the negotiating table. And it underpins thousands of successful pay negotiations every year.
Instead of scheming up new ways to attack the right to strike, ministers should get pay rising across the economy – starting with a decent pay rise for public sector workers.
The staffing crisis blighting our public services will only get worse if the Conservatives continue to hold down wages in our schools, hospitals and other crucial public services.
Unions will stand firm in our defence of the right to strike for every worker. We will fight this spiteful bill every step of the way – in Parliament and in the courts. And whenever people in both public and private sector jobs vote for strike action to defend pay and conditions, the TUC will back them all the way.