|Volume 53 Number 7, March 8, 2023
RCN strike picket - Photo Independent
The unelected Sunak government has been pushing new legislation through Parliament that is even more sweeping than proposals contained in the last Conservative election manifesto to curtail the ability of workers to strike across various sectors. The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill represents an escalated use of the government's executive powers to attempt to quell the resistance of the workers to attacks on their rights and interests. It is particularly to ensure that the resistance to the privatisation of public services is curtailed, and generally to subvert the developing movement to put an end to the anti-social offensive and build a human-centred society, not one structured to pay the rich.
The Bill "to make provision about minimum service levels in connection with the taking by trade unions of strike action relating to certain services"  - introduced into the Commons by the Department for Business under Grant Shapps on January 10 - puts into place legally mandated Minimum Service Levels (MSLs) that will be required in any dispute. This will operate in two levels of arbitrariness. First, the Bill will bestow upon the Business Secretary the power to impose the MSL, merely "consulting" with "such persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate", and second, it will bestow upon employers the power to decide which categories of and how many workers will be required to continue working as usual throughout the dispute in order to meet the MSL. The employer will issue a Work Notice to the unions involved to declare these work requirements.
These declarations having been made, the relevant unions are then responsible for ensuring their members comply, placing the workers' own defence organisations into the position of policing the powers that have been wielded by those in control. Failure to ensure compliance could result in fines of up to £1 million for each transgression. Individual workers themselves can also be sacked with no recourse to appeal. Additionally, the Bill empowers employers to sue unions for not having taken "all reasonable steps to ensure that all members of the union who are identified in the work notice comply with the notice".
The Bill therefore creates a combined power, and a particularly draconian one at that, held by the government and employers, to deprive workers - particularly nurses and paramedics, firefighters and rail workers - of their right to act in defence of their interests. In so doing, it seeks to entrench the profound disequilibrium that exists in the social relation between employer and employed, right at this time that workers are declaring that Enough is Enough!.
Where MSLs can be imposed is itself arbitrary. Though the Bill explicitly lists various sectors (health, education, fire and rescue, transport services; decommissioning of nuclear installations and management of radioactive waste and spent fuel; and border security), it is not limited to those sectors: the Bill reserves further powers through which the Business Secretary can enlarge the list at will.
The Bill has been railroaded through Parliament. Given its First Reading (a formality) in the House of Commons on January 10, the Bill was given its Second Reading six days later on January 16. It has been pointed out that debate was limited to three minutes per MP . Just two weeks later, it moved to Committee Stage on January 30. This is the stage where it is intended that a Bill is given line-by-line scrutiny by MPs, but in this case was treated as a mere formality. Having been passed in the Commons by 309 votes to 249, the Bill moved to the Lords on January 31, where it has been given its two readings and is due to move to Committee Stage in that House on March 9.
It is clear that in pushing through its Bill, the government has paid lip service to due process. The Regulatory Policy Committee (RPC) assigned a "red rating" for the Impact Assessment of the Bill , noting the fact that the RPC received the Assessment only on February 2, weeks after the Bill had already been introduced to Parliament, and concluding that the Assessment is "not-fit-for-purpose".
The Bill is being pushed through in a situation where the "front-line workers" have the support and unity of working people as a whole against the imposition of working conditions and a direction for the economy that they cannot agree with and are affirming are unacceptable. Many polls have shown that the actions which have been taken by health service workers, teachers, and other key workers, which the government cruelly and hypocritically alleges are harming patients, children and so on, have the overwhelming support of the public. The actions of these public sector workers have forced the government to the negotiating table in many cases, having sought to impose settlements by decree. This is a victory for these workers. At the same time, the workers and their unions will not accept that these negotiations will be nothing but a breathing space for the government to stem the workers' actions, stalling on negotiating with the workers' just demands, and blaming workers for the impasse. If the government were serious on discussing the way forward with public sector workers, it would drop this arbitrary and dictatorial Bill, with its implications not just for the front-line workers but for the working class as a whole. The situation underlines that working people's struggles must be waged on a number of fronts, with the vision that far from being marginalised their voice must be heard and taken account of. This is the spirit of Enough is Enough, the affirmation that the movement of the workers is not some temporary opposition to being sidelined and driven into poverty, but is an expression of social responsibility which working people feel towards their work and to its part in the necessary renovation of society.
The workers' movement cannot accept the further restructuring of the state in which executive powers are further strengthened to serve narrow private interests, of which the Minimum Service Levels Bill is part, though formulated under the pretext of being for the good of public services. The workers and their unions have justice on their side when it comes to taking a stand for the interests of public services and the public good. For a petition launched by the "Enough is Enough!" campaign, see below .
1. UK Parliament, "Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill"
2. PCS, "Tory Anti-Strike Bill passes on to next stage", January 17, 2023
3. Regulatory Policy Committee, "Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill: RPC Opinion (Red-rated)", February 21, 2023
4. Enough is Enough: "It is no accident that this right is under attack at the very moment the public is fighting back against the cost-of-living squeeze. This government is determined to force workers to pay the price for a crisis caused by the greed of the elite yet again. We won't accept it. We, the undersigned, pledge to defend the right to strike and oppose this latest legislation #RightToStrike"