New anti-strike laws, intended to mandate frontline workers to maintain minimum service levels, would allow employers to dismiss staff who refuse to work, according to reports.
As early as today, the government is expected to unveil a package of measures, aimed at restricting the scale of strikes for workers in sectors including rail, health, education, fire and rescue and the Border Force.
The proposals also include allowing employers to commence legal action against trade unions that fail to provide minimum levels of service.
As first reported in The Times, the government is set to legislate for tougher thresholds to be reached before industrial action can take place. This includes doubling the notice period of a union’s intention to strike from 14 to 28 days and reducing the current six-month limit that allows industrial action after a successful ballot of members.
A previous plan to increase the threshold for industrial action from 40% to 50% of eligible members is expected to be abandoned, in an effort to speed up the expected legislation’s passage through Parliament.
A government source told the newspaper: “This legislation will remove the legal immunity for strikes where unions fail to implement a minimum level of service. The strikes will be illegal. Ultimately people could be fired for breach of contract.”
Minimum service strike laws
They added that it was not the government’s intention to penalise individuals but to ensure that essential services would be protected.
Minimum service levels for each sector would have to be agreed between the government and unions but if no agreement were reached, the matter would be referred to the Central Arbitration Committee.
The anti-strike package is likely to meet strong opposition, however, with some doubt cast over whether the measures could pass the House of Lords, and immediate legal challenges by the unions. The TUC told the Times that the measures were “unworkable, counterproductive and almost certainly in breach of the Human Rights Act 1998”.
Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Labour would not support a bill aiming to curb strike action.
“If you say that people can’t take industrial action, to say that we’re going from clapping our nurses to sacking them for taking industrial action – which is what the government is now threatening – the idea that that‘s going to produce outcomes and reduce delays for patients, that’s just for the birds.”
Daniel Zona, associate at law firm Collyer Bristow, said: “Employers may find they are able to effectively disregard strike action, or at least give it less significance, in negotiations with unions if they’re still able to provide a minimum service.
“If made law, these changes would amount to one of the most significant curbs on the fundamental right to strike in recent decades. It could in effect amount to forcing some workers to work against their will. The proposed changes could breach human rights legislation and potentially modern slavery laws.
“It is likely the proposed changes would be counterproductive and lead to further disruption and legal challenges by unions and other interested groups.”
Yesterday, Paul Nowak, general secretary of the TUC, called for an urgent meeting with prime minister Rishi Sunak to resolve the numerous pay disputes across the public sector.