'Dangerous gimmick'

Unite slams government's new 'minimum services' anti-strike bill amid wave of strike action

Reading time: 4 min

Only a day after failed talks between health ministers and trade unions on health, rail and teacher disputes, the government today (January 10) published a sinister bill that aims to severely curtail the democratic right to strike.

Condemned by trade unions as unworkable and undemocratic, proposals in the bill would mean some trade union members would be forced to work during a strike.

Last October, the Tory government introduced a bill to enforce so-called ‘minimum service levels’ in the public transport sector during strikes. Now, the new bill, which will supersede the previous bill, will seek to add mandatory minimum service levels in the NHS, education, fire and rescue, border security and nuclear decommissioning.  

Although full details of the new bill are yet to be released, it is understood that employers could issue a ‘work notice’ ahead of a strike, stipulating the workforce they would need to meet minimum service levels. Workers listed on the ‘work notice’ would then lose their right to unfair dismissal if they went on strike.

In practice, this would mean striking workers facing the threat of being sacked. Business secretary Grant Shapps took to the airwaves today to defend the bill, citing other countries such as Spain with minimum service levels but failed to highlight how these provisions have in many cases failed in those countries, as Richard Arthur, head of trade union law at Thompsons Solicitors, noted last week.

Commenting on the new bill, Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said, “This Bill is another dangerous gimmick from a Government that should be negotiating to resolve the current crisis they have caused.

“Grant Shapps is, as usual, economical with the truth. He is taking the worst practices from other countries but not those that actually assist workers. The evidence from abroad clearly shows this kind of legislation only forces unions to use other tactics, inflaming and prolonging disputes.

“If he wants to import good practice from other countries I can give him a long list,” she added. “He could start with banning fire and rehire, which can’t be done in countries like Ireland and Spain but is still legal in the UK.”

Critics of the bill have emphasised that it could have unintended consequences, poisoning industrial relations and prompting even more strikes.

Even the government’s own impact assessment of the previous bill on transport strikes warned that the measures could hasten “an increased frequency of strikes”. The assessment also warned, “a further significant unintended consequence of this policy could be the increase in staff taking action short of striking”.

Unite also slammed Shapps for peddling falsehoods about striking ambulance workers.

Graham added, “I would also like to correct his totally false claims that our ambulance workers have not agreed ‘life and limb’ cover during disputes.

“Our ambulance workers, like other NHS workers, never go on strike without first putting these agreements in place,” she said. “If he understood how the ambulance service works he would know they are negotiated with local managers to ensure that all the specific situations in each NHS Trust are taken into account. It is highly irresponsible and misleading to suggest otherwise. The British people are very capable of seeing through this absolute toffee.”

Over 2,600 Unite members working in the ambulance service in the West Midlands, North West, North East, East Midlands and Wales are set to take a day of strike action on January 23. Find out more about the strike here.

By Hajera Blagg