UK Government proposes to legislate on striking workers
Last year was unparalleled in recent times in terms of the number of working days lost to strikes, with reports that this amounted to over one million days.
In response to this and further potential industrial action, on 10 January 2023, the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill was introduced in Parliament by Grant Shapps, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
If enacted, the Bill will amend the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 (the 1992 Act) to allow the Government to set minimum service levels (MSLs) during strike action and thereby ‘protect’ people across the UK from the disruption they cause.
The 1992 Act defines and governs the roles of trade unions in the UK, including in relation to collective bargaining and industrial action. It sets out the process that a trade union must follow in order to take protected industrial action, including strikes.
The Bill is directed primarily at ‘crucial public services’ such as rail, ambulances and fire services. There are other sectors included in the Bill, such as education, other transport services, border security, other health services and nuclear decommissioning, but the Government hopes not to have to use its powers in those areas. In its press release, they stated that they ‘expect parties in these sectors to reach a sensible and voluntary agreement between each other on delivering a reasonable level of service’, but notes that they have the power to intervene and mandate a MSL if this cannot be agreed. Staff who breach minimum service levels will lose employment protections and could be sacked.
Industrial action, most of the time, is a bargaining tool for better pay and working conditions. The absence of labour on strike days is disruptive to people’s daily lives and intends to demonstrate both that the workers in question are unhappy with their current conditions and that, as their absence shows, their work is important to the daily functioning of society. In other words, a strike is supposed to be inconvenient.
Unsurprisingly, unions have spoken out against the Bill and its implications. Mick Lynch of RMT called it ‘an attack on human rights and civil liberties’. Other union leaders echo these sentiments and highlight that these measures are unlikely to address the fundamental concerns in the striking industries, rather they fear the proposed legislation silences workers, exacerbates existing disputes and can only lead to more strike action in the future.
Whilst employment law is reserved to Westminster, Nicola Sturgeon has also spoken out about the proposals, noting that she would raise her opposition to the Bill with the Prime Minister on his visit to Scotland.
The Bill is currently at its Second Reading stage in Parliament. Given the current climate and the pressure on the Government, we might expect it to be enacted in short course, albeit it may be subject to amendment as part of the process.
We’ll provide further updates as this situation progresses, but please contact one of the employment team if your business requires any support in relation to industrial action or other employment disputes.
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