Last night, Cardiff Trades Union Congress (TUC) held a protest against the government’s proposed Strikes Bill, which they call “an attack on the working class”.
The legislation will force workers in six sectors to provide a minimum level of service during strikes. If employers provide work notices but minimum levels aren’t met, unions can be sued and striking workers can be dismissed.
Dave Bartlett, secretary of Cardiff TUC, said: “The right to strike is something that trade unionists have fought for over two centuries. Right round the ages, we’ve had to fight for everything we’ve got. But in the last forty years they’ve begun to introduce anti-trade union legislation to try and make it difficult for trade unions.”
The proposals follow an unprecedented wave of industrial action in 2022. Starting in June when 40,000 rail staff and 10,000 London Underground workers walked out in the first national rail strike since 1994.
The next six months saw regular strike action from barristers, postal workers, bus drivers, teachers, doctors, firefighters, and civil servants. Even the Royal College of Nursing, which had a no-strike policy until 1995, took action nationally for the first time in its 106-year history.
On Monday, members of the National Education Union voted for further strike action; meaning over 250,000 teachers will stage the largest-ever walkout in education on February 1st.
Joao Felix, a teacher from Llandaff, said: “If they are able to take our right to strike, they are taking away our basic right to fight for a better life. I think it’s a way of showing that they are very afraid of what workers can do when they unite.”
The government all but admitted this themselves in an impact assessment from October which explains how enforcing minimum service levels will hinder workers from getting better pay and terms & conditions through collective bargaining. This could mean the bill would be breaking international law as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) requires the UK to ‘encourage and promote’ collective bargaining machinery.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) holds the right to collective bargaining as an ‘essential element of trade union freedom’, while the European Social Charter aims make sure workers can ‘effectively exercise’ this right.
Speaking to a crowd in front of the UK government building in Central Square, Cardiff Unite chair Ross Saunders said: “We have the most restrictive anti union laws in Western Europe as it is and, effectively, this government wants to try and find a way to ban strikes…”
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak claimed the legislation is backed by the ILO, the UN’s agency for workers’ rights.
But the ILO’s director general, Gilbert Houngbo, denied that the organisation backs the proposed laws. Speaking to the BBC at Davos, he invited British trade unions to file a complaint with the ILO to determine whether the Strikes Bill will in fact breach international workers’ rights laws.
The move contradicts the governments own findings from its memorandum on the ECHR implications of the Transport Strikes Bill in November 2022; in which they argued that minimum service levels were not necessary in health, education, or fire and rescue services.
Comprising of only six pages, the bill does not provide any details of the scope of restrictions. It simply proposes giving Business Secretary Grant Shapps all powers to define what level of service is required, and which workers it applies to.
When a strike takes place, the employer must issue a work notice to the union naming the employees who must continue working. The union must then take “reasonable steps” to ensure workers comply with the notice; workers who fail to comply will lose unfair dismissal protection.
It has not been specified what constitutes “reasonable steps” but failure to take them will render the strike unlawful and require unions to pay damages of up to £1 million.
Cerith Griffiths, an executive council member of the FBU, said: “They say that they’ve done the work, but nobody seems to know how it would work. It’s a bit of a strange anomaly really, when you think of how they talked about the Gender Recognition Act going through in Scotland.
“That has taken a few years, and they said it hasn’t been properly scrutinised; and yet this has been rushed through within a really short period.”
The government has also admitted that the bill could lead to an increase in strike action, as well as action that falls short of a strike. The original impact assessment says that although service levels would likely be higher than the baseline, an increased number of strikes could result in more adverse impacts in the long term.
Griffiths, who gave a rousing speech at the protest, said: “We don’t take strike action because that’s what we want to do, to have a bit of fun. This is a serious time. People are losing losing money when they take strike action. It’s not being done on a whim. It’s done as a last resort.
“And yet this government are unwilling to negotiate. They’re unwilling to sit around the table with the trade union leaders, and they’re unwilling to listen to to the demands of working people.”
“Our whole movement is fighting with one arm tied behind its back,” says Ross Saunders. “When governments have previously tried to take this action, in the 1970s for example, there was industrial action against an attempt to bring these laws in. That successfully defeated the anti trade union laws.
“We have to go back to that. We need industrial action to defeat these proposals.”
Up to half a million workers are set to go on strike on February 1st, including over 300,000 teachers and 100,000 public sector workers, as well as university staff and train drivers. The TUC has declared the 1st a national ‘protect the right to strike day’ and is planning protests across the country to fight the minimum service levels bill.
Bartlett is calling on the TUC to take it a step further: “We’re calling on the TUC to call a council of war—to involve all the trade unions—to hold a 24 hour strike right across the country and demand that they withdraw it.”
“It’s a question of putting pressure on the TUC to take action—if we organise, we can do it. “