Prime minister Rishi Sunak has been working on ‘tough’ new legislation to clamp down on disruptive strike action.
Sunak confirmed that new anti-strike laws were in the works during prime minister’s questions yesterday (7 December), but details were limited.
Thousands of workers in public services including the NHS, train companies, Royal Mail and border control have taken or plan to take strike action – primarily over pay – in the days leading up to Christmas.
Sunak, who has reportedly set up a government strike response unit, said: “I’ve been working for new, tough laws to protect people from this disruption.
“The government has been reasonable. It’s accepted the recommendations of independent pay review bodies, giving pay rises, in many cases, higher than the private sector. But if the union leaders continue to be unreasonable, then it is my duty to take action to protect the lives and livelihoods of the British public.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the prime minister should “stop sitting on his hands and get around the table to resolve these issues”.
Starmer also pointed to comments made by transport secretary Mark Harper, who has previously indicated that new laws would not help with the current wave of industrial action.
The Transport Services (Minimum Service Levels) Bill was recently introduced to Parliament, which if passed would require transport operators including train companies to run a minimum service. The government has previously said this would allow people to get to work and protect shipments of essential goods including food and fuel.
Earlier, Harper told MPs that his “priority” was to resolve the dispute with rail unions “so that passengers don’t have strike days”.
Sunak has also refused to rule out a ban on strike action by emergency services workers.
Responding to Sunak’s comments, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady accused the government of “attempting cheap political pot shots” against unions, and said that ministers had been more interested in sabotaging talks than resolving the issues.
“The right to strike is a fundamental British liberty. With inflation running at 11%, Rishi Sunak wants to make it harder for working people to win better pay and conditions,” she said.
“Public sector workers would love to be able to deliver minimum service levels. But 12 years of Conservative cuts and mismanagement have left our public services falling apart at the seams.”
Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “Yet again the prime minister shows how completely out of touch he is. Rather than dealing with the critical issue of workers suffering pay cuts as prices rocket, he promises to attack the very organisations that are fighting for workers and putting more money in their pockets. No one will be fooled by this attempt to divert attention away from the sheer incompetence of this government.
“For Unite, this is very clear. We will not be intimidated by anti-trade union attacks. If they put more hurdles in our way, then we will jump over them.”