Government could face “tsunami of legal challenges” if it continues to attack right to strike

The Conservatives are “launching a culture war” against unions to distract from failings, says TUC

3 Oct 2022| News

Government proposals that attack the right to strike present “very significant practical and legal problems” according to Michael Ford KC

UK already has “the most restrictive” strike laws in Western Europe, says leading employment lawyer

Proposed attacks on the right to strike by the Conservative government are “very likely illegal”, the TUC has warned today (Saturday) on the eve of the Conservative Party conference.

In a stark warning to Liz Truss, the union body says the government could face a “tsunami of court cases” alongside public and parliamentary opposition, if it pursues policies that further undermine the right to strike and put more power in the hands of “P&O style employers”.

The TUC has commissioned new legal advice from leading employment lawyer Michael Ford KC which examines a range of government proposals which limit working people’s ability to strike to defend their pay and conditions.

The proposals were first set out by former transport minister Grant Shapps in his self-styled 16-point plan, and many were promoted by prime minister Liz Truss in her leadership campaign.

The chancellor used his ‘mini-budget’ to announce minimum service levels and the new policy of making unions put employers’ pay offers – however inadequate – to members before proposing strike action.

According to the TUC’s legal advice many of the government’s proposed policies are a probable breach of the law because they put “disproportionate restrictions” on the right to strike, which is protected by Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998.

In addition, many of the government proposals also breach fundamental rights as stipulated by the International Labour Organization (ILO), which the UK has signed up to, according to the legal opinion.

The TUC warns this could open the door to more legal challenges, pointing to the fact that adherence to ILO conventions are embedded in the UK-EU trade agreement potentially destabilising the deal with our biggest trading partner.

Last month, the TUC reported the UK government to the UN workers’ rights watchdog, the ILO, over the recent spate of anti-union and anti-worker legislation and proposals.

Ministers riding roughshod over the law

The TUC says it’s time ministers respect the law instead of “riding roughshod over it”.

Liz Truss backed a slew of potentially “law-breaking” measures during her campaign to become Tory leader.

Earlier this month, 11 unions co-ordinated by the TUC launched a legal challenge against new “strike breaking” agency worker regulations on the grounds that the changes also contravene Article 11 of the ECHR – as well as the Employment Agencies Act 1973.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said:

“Ministers should be focussed on dealing with the cost of living emergency, and on stabilising the economy after their disastrous mini budget.

“But they are desperate to distract from their failures and launch a culture war against unions.”

On threat to the right to strike, Frances added:

“The right to strike is a fundamental British liberty.

“It’s a last line of defence for working people – allowing them to defend their pay and conditions when bosses won’t negotiate.

“But ministers seems hellbent on attacking this right.

“Undermining the right to strike would give employers the whip hand in a dispute, leaving workers at the mercy of bad bosses.

“And our legal advice shows its plans are unworkable and would likely break the law too.

“Let’s be clear. The government could face a tsunami of legal challenges if it continues to attack the right to strike.

“Instead of riding roughshod over the law, ministers must start respecting it.

“At a time when boardroom pay and profiteering is soaring, government should be focusing on boosting workers’ power in the workplace to win a fair share of the pie – not undermining it.”

Michael Ford KC, barrister at Old Square chambers, said:

“There are a range of very significant practical and legal problems with the proposals.

“Several of the measures were previously rejected by ministers as unworkable or undesirable; several of them give rise to acute practical problems in implementation.

“Most of the proposals put the government at serious risk of breaching the UK’s obligations under international law, including infringing the right to strike protected under the European Convention on Human Rights.

“The proposals need to be considered in the context of the UK’s existing strike laws, which are probably the most restrictive in Western Europe and which have already been held to be in breach of international human rights norms”.