The right to strike under attack?

A man holding a placard marked "ON STRIKE"

Last week saw nearly half a million people in the UK go on strike. Teachers, civil servants, university staff and train drivers all walked out over terms and conditions, joining those other sectors (including nurses, physiotherapists, bus drivers, postal workers, and ambulance staff) engaged in industrial action this winter. Referred to by some as the “Winter of Discontent”, this wave of strikes has certainly galvanised hope for many during the cost of living crisis.

Since December 2022, it has been estimated that a massive 1.5 million people have been on strike, the same number as the General Strike of 1926. Despite the curbs on industrial action passed by regressive governments, working people are acting collectively to say enough is enough.

On one hand, there is much to celebrate about these strikes; mobilising mass actions, coordinated strike days, popular public support, and ultimately, winning better terms and conditions for working people in workplaces across the country. Arguably the trade union movement has not been in better shape for decades.

That said, with this rise of trade union power has come yet another attack on working people, this time in the form of the “Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill” passing its way through the House of Commons. This bill will grant powers to the government to set “minimum service levels” for six key public services, including education, transport, border security, health and fire and rescue. This will likely see some workers, who have democratically and legally voted for strike action, be forced to go into work on strike days. The bill, if it becomes law, will allow employers to serve “work notices” on the relevant union to specify the number of people required to work during the strike in order to meet the “minimum service level”. If an employee refuses to work during the strike where the work notice says otherwise, they could be fired, without recourse in the tribunal. Further, it could leave the union open to be sued if it does not take reasonable steps to ensure its members identified in the work notice comply with that notice.

As the bill makes its way to the House of Lords, we are yet to see how this will play out, and whether there will be any legal challenges made.

Nevertheless, as more trade union members ballot for industrial action and go out on strike, the more power working people have. If you are not a member already, join a trade union, even if there is not one recognised in your workplace. When we join together, we all win.

We at Allan McDougall Solicitors have been trade union lawyers since our firm started in 1929. We have, and always will be, on your side.

Email Alice Bowman
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