Parliament is back for the first time since the general election. We now face nearly five years of a Johnson government – but with an election manifesto thin on detail, what can we expect?
We saw hints in the Queen’s Speech: “To ensure people can depend on the transport network, measures will be developed to provide for minimum levels of service during transport strikes.” Blink and you miss it, but this rather innocuous sentence conceals worrying implications for workers’ rights. The new government is attempting to bolster its own power by diminishing the collective power of workers. Initially impacting transport workers, there is a real threat to the entire union movement.
In 2015, Sajid Javid – then secretary of state for business, innovation and skills – put forward a bill imposing severe limitations on the power of trade unions. The original bill suggested some draconian restrictions, including allowing agency workers to replace striking workers; restricting unions’ use of social media; and requiring unions to provide picket plans to police and employers two weeks in advance of strike action. These more draconian aspects of the bill were dropped when it was eventually passed into law, but the act did introduce a requirement that for a strike to be legal, 50% of union members must vote for it in a ballot. The new government’s proposed approach looks like a return to form.
Since Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, successive governments have weakened the collective power of workers in the economy. A series of legislative attacks have placed severe limitations on the ability of workers to organise through trade unions in order to change the things that matter to them. In 1998 Tony Blair boasted that “the changes that we do propose would leave British law the most restrictive on trade unions in the Western world.” The effects of these restrictions have been substantial. Last year, there were only 273,000 working days lost due to labour disputes, the sixth-lowest annual total since records began in 1891. Despite this, it looks like the government is determined to limit unions even further.
The new proposals would force rail employers and unions to enter into Minimum Service Agreements. These agreements would set in advance the number and nature of staff who would remain at work during any strike. Strike action reducing the transport service to below-minimum levels of service would be deemed unlawful. There is clearly a lot of room here for a government to establish a very high minimum level of service, and so render any strike action essentially ineffective. The law would compel workers to work. They would have no democratic right to effectively challenge low pay, insecurity, or poor working conditions. They would become workers with no agency – forced by the coercive power of the state to work.
More worryingly, these proposals targeting the transport sector could work as the thin end of the wedge when it comes to clamping down on strike action more generally. Mandating a minimum level of service could easily be extended beyond the transport industry to all other essential public services, which means restricting the strike rights of health, education, fire, border security and some nuclear workers. The Centre for Policy Studies has specifically recommended the creation of a commission that would define and adjudicate on the required minimum service standards during a strike for all public services deemed important or essential.
By focusing its efforts on transport workers, the government is employing classic divide-and-rule tactics. Targeting a single sector aims to prevent a coordinated response from the rest of the union movement. Mick Cash, general secretary of the RMT, has said, “an attack on transport workers today will soon become an attack on the rest of the organised working class tomorrow”. Crucially, the government is also pitting transport workers against the general public. The Transport Secretary Grant Shapps made this tactic clear, “it is a basic right for workers to be able to get to work. The ability of a few people to prevent everyone from being able to earn a living has to come to an end.”
Democracy is not just the one vote we cast every few years – it is a continuing process and unions form a vital part of it. Withdrawing our labour is a fundamental part of a functioning democracy. Without it, we would have no power, choice, or control over our working lives. Without the threat of strike action, wages would go down, insecure contracts would proliferate, and working conditions would deteriorate as employers seek to push cost and risk onto workers in order to squeeze out higher profits.
Despite decades of legislative attacks, one in four workers are a member of a trade union. Unions are the largest democratic institutions in the country; we should be loosening their restrictions, not tightening them. In addition to harming our democratic rights, the repression of trade unions has actively hampered overall economic development. At the New Economics Foundation, our work has made the case for increased involvement of trade unions in workplaces, communities, and the economy more broadly. Workers should have the power to collectively decide what happens in their immediate workplace and the economy more broadly – especially as part of a Green New Deal.
Grassroots movements to defend trade union rights are needed more than ever. This government is intent on further limiting workers’ rights at the very moment they need to expand. It’s time to build the broadest possible coalition for the alternative: fully repeal existing anti-strike laws to ensure a right to take industrial action over any issue a workforce sees fit.