The UK is seeing record levels of strike action as ambulance workers, nurses, transport workers and teachers take a stand against the crisis in our public services.
Yet, rather than engaging with the people who keep our country running, or finding solutions to staffing shortages and waiting lists, the government is intent on punishing frontline workers when they speak out.
UNISON believes that the new anti-strike bill, named the Minimum Service Levels Bill, is a full-frontal attack on working people and the trade unions they organise within. It seeks to drastically curtail labour rights in the UK and encourages employers to sack the very people on whose hard work and goodwill our public services depend.
General secretary Christina McAnea said: “UNISON members want the government to focus its efforts on fixing the pay crisis and solving the legitimate disputes that have led to recent strike action. Only then will the crises in our public services start to be solved.
“Instead, the government is attacking workers and making it even harder for them to win fair pay.”
Here are the three things all UNISON members need to know about this new legislation:
Minimum service levels
The bill will grant the government powers to set ‘minimum service levels’ for six key public services: health; fire and rescue; education; transport; decommissioning of nuclear installations and management of radioactive waste and spent fuel; and border security.
There is no detail on the limit to these ‘service levels’, which could equate to 50-80% of normal service.
Based on these levels, the government intends to force people who have democratically and legally voted for strike action to go into work on strike days.
This undermines existing ‘life and limb’ provisions that are already in place during strike action, which exempt certain categories of staff from strikes where there may otherwise be a direct danger to any person.
During the current ambulance workers’ strikes, emergency cover provisions are already in place. These are drawn up by each ambulance trust through negotiations with unions, and benefit from the experience and expertise of local union representatives and local managers who have a detailed understanding of the day-to-day operational needs of their services.
Minimum service levels form the foundation of two new strike-breaking tools: work notices and a removal of workers’ protections.
The bill will hand a new strike-breaking tool to employers: work notices.
If workers in any one of the six listed public services have voted for industrial action, the employer would have a right to serve the union with a ‘work notice’ specifying the number of people required to work, and the work to be performed during the strike in order to meet the ‘minimum service level’.
Once the work notice is served to the union, the union is mandated to take ‘reasonable steps’ to ensure all union members comply with the notice. Otherwise, the union can be sued. Ultimately, the union is forced to break its own strike.
Removal of protection for striking workers
If a work notice requires that an employee works during a strike, they could be sacked if they refuse.
This is because the bill removes key protections from individual workers exercising their rights to strike. Frontline workers will face dismissal for taking part in lawful industrial action.
For decades, the 1992 Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act has protected trade unions and employees if strikes are called, ensuring that employers can’t penalise workers who break their contracts of employment to take industrial action. The bill will amend this legislation to remove workers’ protections.
This will affect huge numbers of UNISON members working in health, fire and rescue services, education and transport.
Furthermore, it makes unions financially liable unless they attempt to force striking workers to go to work, which will have a chilling effect on the ability of trade unions and their members to exercise their right to withdraw their labour.
The right to withdraw labour has historically been proven to be workers’ most powerful tool to improve their conditions of employment, and the new legislation flies in the face of human rights and international labour standards.
The greatest workforce crisis in history
Last July, the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee reported that the NHS and social care faced “the greatest workforce crisis in their history, compounded by the absence of a credible government strategy to tackle the situation.”
Christina McAnea added today: “The government is trying to introduce legislation that’s only concerned with safety in our public services during strike days, while refusing to implement minimum safe staffing levels for every other day. It’s our union that relentlessly campaigns for better public services every day of the year, and we always negotiate emergency cover during strikes.
“The wave of industrial action in the UK is a consequence of government failure, but it does give them an opportunity to fix things. They can do that by talking to unions, respecting the workforce, and resolving disputes by delivering fair pay, not wasting time on political stunts.”
The TUC has launched a petition demanding the right to strike is protected, add your name here.
The article Three things you need to know about the anti-strike bill first appeared on the UNISON National site.