Lawyers warn that Tory anti-strikes bill will make UK an ‘international outlier’

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Several British lawyers have warned that the government’s anti-strikes bill will give ministers “unfettered power” to restrict the right to strike. They’ve added that it will force unions to “undermine” their own strikes, and the bill will make Britain an international “outlier” on union laws.

The statement reads in part:

In Great Britain the right to strike is already heavily limited. The statutory regime places significant requirements on trade unions contemplating industrial action including the need to conduct a postal ballot under highly complex rules, the need to clear high thresholds of support (even higher in ‘important public services’), and to give 14 days’ notice of action.

The Strikes Bill as drafted would remove none of these requirements while placing a hugely onerous new set of requirements on unions and union members.

‘Unfettered power’

According to the lawyers, the sweeping new powers afforded by the bill will give a secretary of state “largely unfettered power to determine what a minimum level of service should be in a particular service”. This will include the power to decide when and to what extent workers can exercise their right to strike.

Moreover, the lawyers add:

The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill would place an unacceptable restriction on a worker’s right to take strike action to defend their terms and conditions of employment. It adds to an existing body of highly restrictive laws on strikes, including the Trade Union Act 2016.

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It would make Great Britain an outlier among comparable countries. If ministers are keen to learn from overseas, a more promising place to start would be the creation of a culture of social dialogue and balanced cooperation through the introduction of sector-wide collective bargaining, together with the clear legal recognition of a positive right to strike.

They also argue that this anti-strikes bill will create undue strain on industrial relations. It will enable employers “acting with the authority of the state” to force trade unions to undermine their own strikes. And trade unions will be forced to do so even if these are strikes which have been voted on with a very high threshold of support. The lawyers add:

Such an obligation is unprecedented in British law, and it places trade unions in an intolerable conflict with their own members.

The legislation also removes significant protections for individual workers exposing them to the risk of dismissal and victimisation. It will do nothing to resolve the current spate of industrial action, which will be settled by negotiation and agreement, rather than by the introduction of even tighter restrictions on trade unions.

‘International outlier’

Those adding their names to the statement include:

  • Alan Bogg (professor of labour law, University of Bristol).
  • Keith Ewing (professor of public law, King’s College London).
  • Ruth Dukes (professor of labour law, University of Glasgow).

Alan Bogg said:

This Bill would risk leaving Britain an international outlier in its restrictive laws on trade unions. When combined with existing legislation, these proposals constitute a further departure from established norms and international treaty obligations.

Rather than bringing Britain into line with other European countries, it deviates significantly from the legal traditions of our neighbours where the right to strike is often given explicit constitutional protection.

Ruth Dukes said:

These minimum service requirements will do nothing to help workers and employers reach agreement. But they might well prolong and inflame disputes.

Anti-strikes bill: making matters worse

In a press release, the Trades Union Congress has argued that the government is “ducking scrutiny over the Bill”. It adds:

If passed, the Strikes Bill will mean that when workers democratically and lawfully vote to strike they can be forced to work and sacked if they don’t comply. The Bill gives ministers power to impose new minimum service levels through regulation. But consultations on how these regulations will work in specific services have not been completed, and parliamentarians have been given few details on how minimum service levels are intended to operate.

It says that the new legislation will “do nothing” to solve the current disputes across the public sector, and will “only make matters worse”.

TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said:

This is a damning assessment of the government’s Strikes Bill. Make no mistake – these new laws are a naked power grab that will allow ministers to severely restrict the right to strike.

This spiteful legislation would mean that when workers democratically vote to strike, they can be forced to work and sacked if they don’t comply. Compulsory work notices during strikes will place a huge strain on employer and union relations and will do nothing to help resolve disputes.

If this nasty legislation gets on to the statute book, the TUC will fight it all the way – including through the courts. The Conservatives cannot legislate away worker dissatisfaction.

Featured image via YouTube (TUC) and YouTube (Telegraph)

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