Is the Prime Minister looking to truss the unions?

Unions say enough is enough not just to the cost-of-living crisis but to the anti-union laws as well

Commentary icon9 Sep 2022|Comment

Adrian Weir Author Photo
Adrian Weir

Assistant Secretary of the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom

Be afraid, be very afraid. This famous quote from the movie The Fly is presumably what the incoming Prime Minister hopes that unions and their activists will be feeling as she crossed the Downing Street threshold.

Early in her leadership campaign she highlighted that she would introduce more anti-union laws, a further tightening of the screw to try to prevent the unions organising effective industrial action.

We should also note that Grant Shapps joined this feeding frenzy with a multi-point plan to seemingly invoke emergency powers to use against unions organising industrial action. But Shapps has been dispatched to the backwaters of Welwyn Hatfield so his ideas need not detain us here for too long.

According to the Daily Mail, which we should imagine was fully briefed, in the early part of her leadership campaign Truss was advocating:

• the introduction of minimum service levels during strikes affecting critical national infrastructure such as railways and hospitals
• raising the minimum proportion of workers required to back a strike ballot for industrial action to be legal from 40 per cent of those eligible to vote to 50 per cent
• increasing the minimum notice period for strikes to four weeks, up from two weeks at present
• ending unions being able to strike as many times as they like in the six months after a ballot
• stopping members receiving tax-free payments from unions on strike days.

Of course all of this came hot on the heels of her ‘friend’, the outgoing PM, enacting through the back door with no Parliamentary scrutiny, his own round of legal attacks on the unions:

• the law was amended so that where an employer is confronted by striking workers it would be lawful, it is currently unlawful, for that employer to use agency labour to break the strike
• the law was also amended to increase in the statutory damages a large union could be made to pay an employer for not repudiating members’ wildcat action from £250,000 to £1,000,000

At this time the Government proposed, an idea that has been reprised by Truss, that in a dispute in what the government deems to be an essential service there will be a legal requirement placed on the union concerned to participate in a minimum service requirement.

In other words, a union will be legally obliged to organise the undermining of its own strike. How this would work in practice takes some stretch of imagination. During a railway, or other essential service, strike the union, which is presumably not at that moment negotiating with the employer over issues of substance, will be required to negotiate with this same employer about ensuring sufficient of its members were available to return to work to maintain a level of minimum service.

And what of the workers? What would happen if the workers rostered to work refused to do so? Would there be any sanction imposed, some sort of statutory fine? What would then happen if this fine was not paid? Workers hauled off to jail?

It may be that it is here that the agency workers come into play. A union declines to co-operate with a minimum service requirement (for which there will of course be a penalty) or its members refuse; the employer may now lawfully use agency labour to provide the minimum service and in so doing breaks the strike.

We don’t know if this scenario will be played out but there’s no doubt that the agency labour and minimum service requirement provisions are there to further limit the almost non-existent right to strike in Britain.

This week the TUC has lodged a complaint with the United Nations employment body, the International Labour Organisation, arguing that the Government has on two counts breached the right to strike by:

• introducing legislation that allows employment businesses to supply agency workers to replace workers taking industrial action in non-essential sectors
• quadrupling to £1 million the maximum damages that an employer can seek if a union’s industrial action falls foul of the UK’s onerous and complex laws regarding industrial action.

These complaints have been supplemented by a reference to the imposition of “minimum service levels in transport and other ‘critical’ sectors. Ministers have suggested that these will include power, education and the health service. Liz Truss … has pledged to pass primary legislation on this issue within 30 days of assuming office.”

However, on the day that she took office it was not the unions that seemed to be in her sights but the employment protections afforded by European legislation from which the UK cannot easily wriggle out. The UK is obliged to maintain a level playing field of rights with the EU and is prohibited from divergence to obtain a competitive advantage.

Top of her list was said to be the Working Time Directive that is meant to limit the maximum working week to 48 hours. The abolition of the WTD has been a touchstone for the Conservatives since its introduction; presumably forcing workers to work for ever longer hours will ensure that the elusive “graft” is instilled into an “idling” labour force.

Other Euro rights where she may want clear divergence include the right to equal pay between women and men, the right to holiday pay and the right to parental leave.

There’s no doubt that the agency labour and minimum service requirement provisions are there to further limit the almost non-existent right to strike in Britain.

Thatcher and Major may have been able to pass, in a kind of shock and awe, a mosaic of anti-union laws through the 1980s and into the 1990s as unions and their members were punch drunk with deindustrialisation, mass unemployment and economic dislocation. We also suffered a series of debilitating and demoralising defeats with the miners and print workers

But since the dismissal of 800 seafarers by P&O Ferries in the spring there has been throughout the summer a rekindled spirit of resistance among workers and their unions. From railways through post and telecommunications to teachers in further and higher education, and including barristers, the summer strike wave is unprecedented in recent times.

It is this spirit of resistance rather than pursuing the Government through the courts that may ensure that workers and their unions say enough is enough not just to the cost-of-living crisis but to the anti-union laws as well.

Adrian Weir

Adrian Weir Author Photo

Adrian Weir has a background in the engineering industry in Southampton where he was an AUEW lay representative (shop steward/safety... Read more »