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UK Government’s Proposed Minimum Service Levels During Strikes Violate Workers’ Rights, Warns JCHR

In this article, I examine the latest anti-trade union legislation proposed by the Tories, the response of the JCHR and discuss what the working class can do to resist it.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) has sounded the alarm on the UK government’s proposed legislation to enforce minimum service levels during strikes, warning that it could infringe on workers’ rights. A group of MPs and peers has identified the “deep flaws” in the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, which has already been passed in the House of Commons and is now under scrutiny in the House of Lords.

This is just another example of the UK Conservative government’s contempt for the working class and trade unions. They are always looking to legislate them out of existence and strip them of their rights. The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill is yet another attempt to undermine the ability of workers to take collective action and fight for better working conditions. It is an assault on the basic human rights of workers and their right to strike. The Conservative Party has a long history of showing contempt for trade unions and the right to strike. In 1984, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously said:

“We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.”

Margaret Thatcher

Similarly, in 1981, Thatcher’s employment secretary, Norman Tebbit, declared:

“I grew up in the ’30s with an unemployed father. He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking ’til he found it.”

Norman Tebbit

Rishi Sunak the current Tory Prime Minister considered banning thousands of workers from joining a union, according to leaked government emails detailing proposals described as potentially the “biggest attack on workers’ rights and freedoms” for decades.

It is widely known that one of the reasons why the Conservative government pushed for Brexit was to weaken employment rights and introduce regressive policies that stifle the ability of workers to take collective action. The European Union has been seen as an advocate for workers’ rights and has introduced some measures to protect them from exploitation and abuse. By leaving the EU, the government now has more freedom to water down employment rights and impose draconian legislation to suppress strikes and other forms of industrial action. The Tories are notorious for their hostility towards workers and their unions. The proposed legislation to enforce minimum service levels during strikes is yet another attempt to erode workers’ rights and stifle collective action. By mandating minimum service levels, the Tories are seeking to undermine workers’ ability to strike and exercise their right to freedom of association, guaranteed under Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Tories’ agenda is clear: to protect the interests of big business and the ruling class at the expense of workers and their families. This is evident in their relentless attacks on trade unions, as well as their austerity measures that have caused widespread hardship and poverty. By limiting workers’ ability to withdraw their labour, the Tories are looking to maintain their grip on power and prevent workers from challenging the status quo. They fear the collective power of workers, and they will stop at nothing to undermine it.

This bill if passed would mandate minimum service levels for public services, including fire, ambulance, and rail services, as well as education, nuclear decommissioning, and border security employers during strikes. Employers would be authorised to issue a “work notice” to unions, identifying who is required to work during a strike. Failure to comply with the minimum service levels could result in workers losing their jobs, while employers could sue trade unions for losses. The JCHR report argues that the bill violates the right to strike, protected under Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and does not meet the UK’s human rights obligations. The report highlights the lack of clarity in the legislation and its failure to demonstrate a “pressing social need” for restrictions. The committee recommends alternative mechanisms, such as negotiation and independent resolution of disagreements, to ensure less interference with Article 11.

Trade union leaders in the UK have long argued that strikes are a potent weapon for securing better pay and conditions for workers. Frances O’Grady, the former general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), states that:

“strikes are always a last resort, but when they happen, they can be powerful tools for winning fair pay and conditions.”

Frances O’Grady

Her successor, Paul Nowak, has vowed to fight the bill “tooth and nail,” stating that “this legislation effectively takes away the right to strike from millions of public sector workers.” Similarly, Sharon Graham of Unite believes that:

“where workers unite and take action, we can fight and win.”

Sharon Graham

Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the Rail, Maritime, and Transport union (RMT), adds that

“We’ve always been able to back up our proposals with the ability to take strike action. Even if you don’t take it, the ability to have it is often enough to give you a bit of power at the negotiating table. That will be removed. The employers will be laughing at us.”

Mick Lynch

Lynch has called on elected politicians to actively join the struggle for change and show solidarity with the workers’ demands for better wages, affordable housing, and progressive taxation policies.

The committee has proposed various amendments to the bill, including limiting the Secretary of State’s power to make minimum service regulations, preventing employers from considering trade union activity and membership when issuing work notices, and stopping workers from losing their employment protection. The JCHR has urged the government to review the suggested amendments before the bill reaches the committee stage in the House of Lords on March 9. Joanna Cherry KC, the committee chair, has issued a stark warning that the current form of the proposed legislation poses a grave threat to striking workers, who could face the risk of being dismissed, while unions may face exorbitant million-pound fines. This is yet another instance of the ruling class using state power to crush the legitimate struggles of workers and stifle their ability to defend their interests. The government must stop prioritising the interests of the capitalist class and start prioritising the rights of the working people, as enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.

The government needs to heed the recommendations of the JCHR and introduce legislation that upholds the rights of workers and trade unions. As Marxists, we support a vibrant trade union movement because it is essential for the working class to have collective bargaining power against capitalist exploitation. Trade unions serve as a means for workers to unite and fight for better wages, benefits, and working conditions, ultimately leading to a more equitable and just society. It is crucial to acknowledge that working-class voters should never cast their ballots in favour of the Conservative Party.

The Tories will always represent the interests of the ruling class and continue to perpetuate the class inequalities that underlie our society. Although the Tories may make hollow promises on issues such as increased spending on public services, their policies consistently prioritise the wealthy elite at the expense of ordinary working people, this bill is a prime example. The fact that many working-class voters in the “Red Wall” areas voted for the Conservative Party in the 2019 general election represents a betrayal of our class and underscores the need for a strong, unified leftist movement. Furthermore, the use of racist rhetoric during the Brexit campaign was a cynical attempt to divide the working class and distract from the genuine issues affecting their lives. Even four years later the Tories, and their supporters in the right-wing media such as The Daily Mail, The Sun, and The Telegraph, persist in promoting a divisive narrative that denounces trade unionists along with others of our class, individuals who identify as woke, transgender, people with disabilities, people of colour, or from other groups of the oppressed. Only by rejecting the Conservative Party and its divisive, elitist policies can we hope to build a more just and equitable society.

The Labour Party should abandon its poor imitation of Tory lite politics and end its shift further to the right, this is a betrayal of its working-class base and an abandonment of the progressive values that it has historically championed. If Keir Starmer is unable to move to the left, it is imperative that we advocate for parties and movements that genuinely represent the interests of the working class (currently the Labour Party is not one of these) and seek to transform society in a way that benefits everyone, not just the privileged few. If the Labour Party refuses to stand with us, then we shall forge our own path.

As leftists, we have a vital role to play in countering the cruel and harmful narratives that are all too often propagated in our society. By raising our voices in protest and rallying against the far right, we can help to create a world where inclusivity, empathy, and justice, are core values. Those in power fear the strength of our class, but they also recognise that a divided working class is a weaker one. By standing together and challenging these harmful beliefs, we can build solidarity, encourage more people into trade unions, local community groups, political organisations and the left.

I will leave the final words to Billy Bragg.


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