By Chris Stewart
Horrified by an upsurge of working class people taking strike action amidst the cost of living crisis, the Tory government has declared war on the democratic rights of workers and their ability to strike.
The “minimum service levels” bill requires workers in certain sectors – health, education, transport etc – to provide minimum levels of service during a strike. The “minimum service” would be decided by the Secretary of State – essentially giving the government the ability to make effective strike action illegal for a whole host of public sector workers, allowing bosses to dismiss workers for breaking these regulations.
Sunak is carrying on the attacks on trade unions of his predecessors. In 2016, the Cameron government brought in an undemocratic industrial action ballot threshold, meaning that at least 50% of members have to vote, with a simple majority not sufficient for a mandate for strike action.
While in the past this has been a huge blockade to strike action, the raw anger of hundreds of thousands of workers today means that most ballots are smashing this threshold – meaning the Tories feel the need to further attack the right to strike.
This comes alongside other Tory attacks on democratic rights especially targeting the climate movement, such as the Public Order Bill which would give police the power to shut down protests if they “might” cause “widespread disruption”.
Recognising their system is in crisis, the Tories and the ruling class that they represent are afraid of the potential for explosive movements of working class and young people. As all economic forecasts point to a recession, they are gearing up for a protracted period of attacks on workers living standards and hope to score an early victory through this legislation.
While this particular legislation will not apply to Northern Ireland, its passing would represent an important warning to workers here. The DUP’s Sammy Wilson was one of two non-Tory MPs to vote in favour of the bill. In 2022, MLAs from the DUP, UUP and Alliance voted down a bill from Gerry Carroll which would have removed anti-trade union laws introduced by Thatcher. It cannot be ruled out that similar legislation could be brought in to attack workers here at some stage.
If allowed to be implemented it would also have implications for many strike workers here are involved in. As Royal Mail, NHS workers, PCS members and lecturers will know, strikes here are linked to broader struggles in Britain. The weakening of democratic rights of workers in Britain to strike therefore is an attack on the effectiveness of strike action here. It is also part of global trend which has seen fort example the Biden administration attack the rights of railway workers to strike. Trade union leaders in Northern Ireland would make a criminal mistake to say that attacks on the rights of workers in Britain to strike dont have serious implications for us here and therefore not join efforts to oppose them.
Some trade union leaders have indicated that they plan to take the government to court over these new laws. However we must be clear that the courts represent the interests of the bosses, and they will be under a massive pressure to keep this legislation.
The trade union movement needs to respond to these attacks with a mass campaign, bringing together the millions of workers voting for strike action and coordinating the action to have the biggest impact possible. The 1st of February will see a strike action of teachers, university staff, civil servants and train drivers – and the TUC have called this a national day of protest against the new laws. This can and should be the springboard towards further general, coordinated strike action across the UK needed to defeat the Tories and their assault on workers democratic rights.