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The Tories’ Latest War on Workers

The government's proposed anti-union laws are a historic attack on the right to strike. The aims are simple: to weaken workers and keep wages low in a cost-of-living crisis. It's time for a mass movement to fight back.

This country is currently in the midst of the biggest wave of strikes since the 1980s, with a resurgent labour movement leading the struggle against a system that demands working-class people get pushed ever deeper into poverty. But now, with new laws announced by Rishi Sunak set to be introduced to Parliament in the coming days, those trade unions and the workers they represent are also facing the greatest attack in a generation. The government is taking clear aim at the right to strike, and in doing so, hoping to hobble the trade union movement for good.

This legislation is an expanded version of the Minimum Service Levels Bill, which initially focused solely on rail workers. The new expanded Bill is set to cover millions of public sector workers across the NHS, the railway, fire services, education, and border security. 

Under government plans, trade unions would be compelled to work with employers to agree to keep a minimum level of services running during strikes. In practice, trade unions would be required to negotiate with bosses to agree that a number of their members will continue work during strike action to keep services running, with government ministers reserving the right to intervene and set staffing levels themselves.

In the UK, there exists no singular right to strike. Instead, trade unions and workers have legal protections when they withdraw their labour. The new laws would remove these protections, meaning that trade unions which do not comply would be liable to be sued by employers for lost revenue, bankrupting them. And any individual workers who refuse to comply will face the sack. 

The result will mean that trade unions will be forced to break their own strikes, and workers will be compelled (or, in the words of Mick Lynch, ‘conscripted’) under threat of penury to cross picket lines to undermine action taken by their colleagues. By forcing trade unions to keep services running, strike action would be rendered ineffective. And with that, the thin veneer of gratitude shown by the government towards essential workers during the pandemic would be abandoned—from clapping nurses to sacking them. 

In addition, the government reportedly wants to double the minimum notice period for industrial action and reduce the six-month limit after a successful ballot, bogging trade unions down in even more bureaucracy and red tape. 

The new anti-strike laws would constitute the first significant legislative attack against trade unions since the passing of David Cameron’s Trade Union Act in 2016. The Trade Union Act built on what was already one of the most restrictive regimes for workers’ rights in Europe by attacking trade union funding and, crucially, putting in place thresholds for ballots on industrial action.

The restrictions in the Trade Union Act, including the 50 percent turnout and the 40 percent support thresholds, were intended precisely to prevent the sort of large-scale strike action we are seeing in the NHS and elsewhere, but the severity of the cost of living crisis has pushed workers’ to the brink and made them determined enough to pass these hurdles. After putting a thumb on the scale didn’t work, the government wants to smash the scale altogether.

For workers, strikes or the threat of strike action is the essential tool for winning better pay and improved working conditions and the last resort to protect themselves from attacks on their livelihoods. Indeed, the weakening of workers’ rights is the primary cause of the low pay and spiralling inequality this country has seen since Thatcher’s attack on the trade union movement. For the general public, trade unions are often the last line of defence for our public services. 

Without the threat of effective strike action, collective bargaining amounts to little more than collective begging. Trade unions will be turned into lobbying groups, and working people will have to accept whatever bosses offer. If the right to withdraw one’s labour is curtailed, the result will be a deepening of the cost of living crisis, spiking inequality, and the decimation of vital public services on which we rely. A right-wing Tory government will have free reign to wreak havoc on living standards and trash the state. 

The right to strike is an essential freedom in a democratic society. It has been hard won by collective struggle over many years. It has its roots in a tradition of radicalism that stretches back to the Levellers, the Diggers, and the Chartists, whose efforts were built upon by the trade union movement. Workers’ rights are at least as vital to democracy as freedom of expression and the right to protest—both of which have been significantly curtailed in recent years—and must be protected at all costs. We are in a moment of great peril for the fundamental rights that underpin a free society and protect us from the exploitation of rapacious bosses. 

If these laws are allowed to pass, a precedent will be set that threatens the rights of every worker. Just a few months ago, only rail workers were to be targeted by minimum service level legislation, but as the cost of living crisis deepened and greater numbers of workers walked out over pay and conditions, vast swathes of public sector workers are now to be attacked. If this rubicon is crossed, all workers across the private and public sectors should expect their rights to be next in the firing line. 

Regardless of what the government might say, their attacks on the right to strike are not about preventing disruption. The dysfunction on the railway, the deadly waiting times in the NHS, and our creaking education system are more than enough evidence that the Tories are not motivated by a commitment to public services. Instead, they are about holding down working people’s pay and kneecapping a resurgent trade union movement that threatens an economic order working solely in favour of the rich. 

The growth of the trade union movement has given working people hope that it is within their power to resist a government that says we should be poorer year-on-year, and it is for precisely this reason that they want to remove our ability to strike. Trade unions will undoubtedly do all they can to resist, but they cannot succeed alone. This authoritarian legislation must be fought in the workplace, in the streets, in the courts, and across civil society to give us a chance of stopping it.

The elites are fighting like hell for their class; it’s time for us to do the same for ours.