How we get rid of the Tories’ anti-union legislation?

The Strikes Act 2023 is the latest in a long line of anti-union laws

Commentary icon23 Feb 2024|Comment

Sarah Woolley

General Secretary, BFAWU

Back in December, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) called a special conference to discuss the movements’ response to the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 (MSL). This included possible actions a united movement could take to undermine the legislation and make its implementation impossible in practice.

There will be a need to build coalitions across the wider labour movement, progressive campaigners, and community activists to ensure that we pressure as many local authorities as possible, through directly elected mayors and councillors, to reject issuing work notices and to speak out against this piece of legislation as Sheffield City Council already has.

In an effort to assist such a campaign, CTUF is proposing to work alongside Strike Map, which itself is partnered with the GFTU of which I am the president of for the next 12 months, in an initiative to Defend the Right to Strike.

The aim will be to use the power of our unions to encourage local councils and other employers to join with the Scottish Government, Welsh Assembly and others in refusing to implement work notices – a key TUC strategy in undermining the legislation.

The aims of the strategy are to utilise the strength of the union movement to build a group of employers/local authorities that refuse to implement work notices as part of undermining the implementation of the Minimum Services Level legislation.

To unite allies in our communities, Westminster and elsewhere to call for the MSL to be scrapped and employers not to implement work notices.

To use this mass campaign as a springboard to demand the repeal of this legislation but we can’t stop there we want the scrappage of all other anti-union laws too.

Friends, the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 is the latest in a long line of anti-union laws, which has culminated in Britain having some of the most restrictive trade union legislation in Western Europe. This latest attack redefines the relationship between unions, employers, and union members to such an extent that unions are coerced into working with employers to define who can and cannot take strike action. Worse, if union members do not comply with these work notices they risk dismissal without unfair dismissal protections and the Unions involved risk fines and sequestration of assets.

The current legislation identifies six areas of the economy that will be impacted including health, fire and rescue, education, rail transport and border services, together with aspects of nuclear installations and management of radioactive waste. However, it is widely feared that the legislation could be extended to include other groups of workers. The current legislation, known as a ‘skeleton’ act of parliament, due to its small size, will largely miss parliamentary scrutiny, with control left in the hands of the Secretary of State – whoever that may be from one week to the next.

However, under the legislation as currently drafted, there is no legal duty on employers to produce work notices. This provides employers with a degree of discretion and the trade union movement with a huge opportunity to build its strategy of non-compliance with the legislation.

Already, both the Scottish Government and Welsh Assembly have been clear they both oppose the legislation and will not look to comply with it. This demand to not implement the legislation has growing momentum, with both Sheffield City Council and metro mayors publicly stating they will not comply.

This is an opportunity for us to build a mass movement of trades unions, campaign groups and community activists to target employers, directly elected mayors and political leaders to not comply with this legislation and build pressure on any future Government to repeal this and all other anti-union laws of the last forty years, we need more than words and marches, we need deeds and action now.

This campaign will use the now-established and successful “mapping” tools developed by StrikeMap, if you haven’t had a look at their map, I would encourage you to do so, to engage trade union members and our communities in building a mass movement to make MSLs unworkable.

Developing this level of non-compliance and a wider understanding of the UK’s restrictive trade union laws can help generate an opportunity to build pressure on any incoming Government whatever colour it may be to repeal this and previous anti-union laws. The only way to do this though is by standing together across our movement, with our allies in community organisations and push back against this and all anti-union legislation.

This article is an adapted version of the speech given by BFAWU General Secretary Sarah Woolley at the Morning Star Conference – ‘Fightback: 40 Years on from the Miners’. It was first published on the Labour Outlook website.