Unions in France, Germany, Italy and Spain condemn UK government attack on the right to strike

• European unions representing more than 20 million workers warn Strikes Bill will drag UK further away from democratic norms.

20 Feb 2023| News

Unions representing more than 20 million workers in France, Germany, Spain and Italy have today joined forces to slam the UK government’s attack on the fundamental right to strike.

As the Strikes Bill begins its journey through the House of Lords next week, a joint statement by the general secretaries of nine European trade unions wholly rejects the government’s claims that the legislation would bring the UK into line with Europe.

Ministers have repeatedly named France, Italy and Spain as countries they are supposed to be emulating through the legislation. But the major unions in these countries strongly dispute these claims.

In the joint statement condemning the Strikes Bill, the European unions say that the UK is already an outlier in Europe and has the most draconian anti-union laws in the democratic world.

The European unions warn that more restrictions on the right to strike will “only drag the UK further away from democratic norms, risk violating international law, and tarnish its international reputation.”

UK outlier in Europe

The French, German, Italian and Spanish unions highlight that marked differences in laws governing unions and workers in disputes in their countries compared to the UK.

They say “the fundamental right to strike is protected by constitutional and other means in all other advanced European democracies.

“Unlike workers in the UK, workers in Spain, Italy, France and Germany enjoy the protection of national sectoral collective bargaining agreements setting minimum standards on workers’ rights for whole industries.

“These agreements are underpinned by the freedom to take strike action without disproportionate restrictions.”

The unions express particular concern about the UK government’s plans to threaten workers with the sack when they have voted to take part in a legitimate ballot for industrial action.

Staffing crisis and public sector pay

The European unions say the UK government should be prioritising a decent pay rise for public sector workers to fix the staffing crisis across our public services.

The TUC has accused the government of investing far more time and energy in steamrollering this Bill through parliament than on resolving disputes.

The TUC says so far, ministers have failed to engage in good faith on public sector pay.

The UK union body adds that the real threat to public safety is the chronic staffing crisis which blights our NHS and emergency services – and means patients can’t get the quality of care they need.

Recent TUC research found that 1 in 3 public sector workers are actively considering quitting their jobs – with poor pay the most popular reason cited for staff wanting to quit.

TUC General Secretary Paul Nowak said:

“The right to strike is a fundamental freedom – but the Conservative government is attacking it in broad daylight. No one should face the sack for trying to win a better deal at work. This legislation would mean that when workers democratically vote to strike, they could be forced to work and sacked if they don’t comply.

“The UK already has some of the most restrictive anti-union laws in Europe. That’s why major unions in France, Spain, Germany and Italy have slammed this draconian bill. They know that the strikes bill will only serve to drag the UK even further away from European democratic norms.

The legislation is undemocratic, unworkable and almost certainly illegal. And crucially, it could poison industrial relations and exacerbate disputes rather than help resolve them. With workers facing the longest and harshest wage squeeze in 200 years, the last thing working people need is for ministers to make it harder to win a decent pay rise. It’s time for ministers to drop this spiteful bill and protect the right to strike. ”

ETUC General Secretary Esther Lynch said:

“The claim that restricting the right to strike would bring the UK into line with ‘European norms’ would be laughable if its consequences for democracy and working people weren’t so grave. The UK’s draconian restrictions on the right to strike are part of an antagonistic approach to industrial relations which has produced the biggest social conflict in a generation. It stands in stark contrast to the system of social dialogue between unions, employers and government which is the norm in the countries picked by UK government and across Europe.

“If the UK government genuinely wants to bring its industrial relations into line with European norms, they would support sectoral collective bargaining for all workers and regularly sit down for negotiations with union representatives. The right to strike is a basic part of a democratic society and the more restrictions that are placed in the way of workers seeking to exercise that right, the further the UK will find itself from democratic norms. The best way to avoid strikes is genuine negotiation and not draconian legislation.”