We are in the midst of the largest wave of industrial action in decades. Workers are addressing the cost-of-living crisis through the pay packet. And poll after poll demonstrates widespread public support for nurses, teachers, junior doctors and other workers taking strike action despite a concerted media effort to undermine them.
In response to the upsurge in workplace resistance, the government has introduced the most significant attack on trade unions in a generation: the Minimum Service Levels Bill.
The Minimum Service Levels Bill proposes to effectively abolish the right to strike for workers across Britain’s public services by allowing bosses and government ministers to set minimum service levels that must be observed at all times. It is a brazen attack on working people. Workers would be compelled to work during strike action, even if they had supported it. Any worker refusing to cross a picket would face the sack, and bosses can sue non-compliant trade unions for failing to undermine their own strikes.
The Bill would effectively move trade unions from a position of collective bargaining to one of collective begging. The Tories are doing this for one purpose: to drive down wages.
Attacks on Unions
The Minimum Service Levels Bill is the latest in a long line of attacks to weaken trade unions. Most trade union rights in Britain originated in the long boom following the Second World War, when post-war governments recognised the importance of accommodating workers and trade unions—the era of ‘beer and sandwiches’ with government ministers. The growing crisis of the 1970s produced a sharp shift in direction, and since Thatcher’s election in 1979, we have suffered 45 years of attacks on our rights.
Anti-union laws are a means of institutionalising the power of employers against their workers, preventing working people from winning better wages and improved terms and conditions. They may make strike action illegal, set hurdles in the way of unions seeking to call a strike or limit and control the effective running of a strike by restricting picketing. Trade unions in Britain face all of these barriers and many more.
To call a lawful strike is a hugely complicated task. While this onslaught has been driven by Conservative governments, the New Labour years left their changes in place, with Tony Blair boasting that the UK had the most restrictive laws on trade unions in the Western world.
Following the 2008 banking crisis, the Tory-led coalition embarked on a brutal policy of austerity. Workers across the public and private sectors faced a relentless onslaught on their pay and conditions. The length and depth of these attacks were unprecedented, with the TUC reporting the longest pay squeeze in 200 years.
The Tories knew that resistance was inevitable at some point. So to prevent workers from taking action, they introduced the 2016 Trade Union Act. The Act imposed turnout thresholds to prevent strike action even when a majority of those voting supported it, with even higher thresholds for those in ‘important public services’ and a myriad of other obstacles.
The severity of the cost-of-living crisis that hit following the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine gave workers the impetus to pass the hurdles the Trade Union Act put in place. Nurses, railway workers, civil servants, posties and many others won their ballots, ushering in a wave of industrial action. In response to workers beating unfair thresholds and existing anti-union legislation, the Government introduced the even more draconian Minimum Service Levels Bill.
Lessons From History
If we are serious about re-building and challenging the attacks of employers and government, we need a new strategy built upon restoring workplace confidence and militancy. The strikes of the past year are only the first green shoots of a possible recovery.
The trade union response to the 1971 Industrial Relations Act can teach an important lesson for how we might respond to the challenges we face today. The Act, passed by Ted Heath’s Conservative government, severely curtailed the right to take industrial action. It set up a ‘National Industrial Relations Court’ (NIRC) to impose the new laws, which in July 1972 led to the arrest of five dockworkers—the ‘Pentonville 5’—for secondary picketing, who became the focus of a mass movement of solidarity.
Their imprisonment sparked a wave of industrial action, often unofficial, eventually leading to a call for a national strike by the TUC. There were factory occupations, the shutdown of national newspapers, a national dockers strike and a mass march on Pentonville prison. In the face of growing mass unrest, the authorities released the five. Through the use of the very tactics the Industrial Relations Act made illegal, the Act and the NIRC were fundamentally weakened and undermined.
The Heath government was fatally damaged too. It would soon call an election asking the country, ‘Who Governs Britain’, the unions or the government? Heath lost, making way for Harold Wilson’s Labour government to repeal the legislation. This outcome was a severe defeat for the Tories, the employers and the ruling class.
A Strategy of Resistance
Today’s trade union movement faces a similar challenge, with the Minimum Service Levels Bill set to pass into law later this year. We must now decide on a strategy to push back, defeat and reverse these new anti-strike laws. There has been much talk of possible legal action, notably from the TUC, but we cannot and should not rely on the courts to deliver for us.
The Fire Brigades Union is proposing another strategy: we have called for a serious discussion about a cross-union campaign of non-compliance to defeat the Minimum Service Levels Bill. Last month, the FBU’s Executive Council called for the TUC to discuss adopting a strategy of non-compliance and building a mass movement around it. This could be initiated by calling an emergency congress of the TUC alongside a national demonstration.
A strategy of resistance will take a huge and united labour movement campaign, and we should not underestimate the scale of that task. The industries and organised workforces that provided the backbone of the movement that defeated the Industrial Relations Act have been severely weakened in the decades since. Nevertheless, facing up to harsh realities should not mean surrender; workers have built, rebuilt and fought back in worse situations.
Trade unions could defy the legislation by refusing to cooperate with employers to impose ‘work notices’ compelling employees to work during strike action, and individual workers could refuse to cross picket lines, rendering the anti-strike laws unworkable.
If the Minimum Service Levels Bill is defied, will Sunak preside over the mass sacking of nurses, paramedics, teachers, firefighters and rail workers? These are the people who keep the country running every day. They were the ‘Covid heroes’ who risked their safety at the height of the pandemic.
Mass campaigns of non-compliance have defeated anti-union laws in the past, and they can do so again. Our task is to build a new workplace trade union organisation and rebuild confidence from the bottom up. Addressing how we challenge, confront, and defeat the anti-union laws is vital to that strategy. We must raise our sights.