The right to strike: are minimum service levels needed?

Laws that ensure a minimum service during rail strikes are to be extended to cover other public sectors under new government plans, according to sources.

Supporters of Liz Truss’s proposed crackdown insist that curbing the right to strike will prevent unions from “holding the country to ransom”, The Times reported. But unions have accused the prime minister of planning an attack on workers’ rights to push for better terms.

‘On the public’s side’

During her campaign for the Tory party leadership, Truss promised that she would “introduce minimum service levels on critical national infrastructure” through legislation during her first 30 days as PM.

Politico said Truss was attempting to show that she was “on the side of members of the public who’ve faced significant disruption to their daily lives”. Some members of her cabinet also hope the proposed measures – first suggested in the Conservative Party’s 2019 election manifesto – could “set a trap” for Keir Starmer “by forcing Labour into a choice between unions and people using services”, said The Times.

“Labour would have to decide whose side they are on and I hope in the end they would back us,” a “senior government source” told the website.

Supporters of Truss’s plan “point to similar laws in Europe”, the paper added. In French schools, local authorities are required to ensure that children are cared for during strikes, by drafting in cover for teachers.

The French senate also voted in 2020 in favour of a law designed to “force transport companies to provide a “minimum service even in times of strike“, reported The Connexion. A similar law exists in Italy.

‘Attack on civil liberties’

Some of Truss’s ministers fear that a crackdown would “scupper negotiations with the public sector unions and lead to more strikes before laws can be brought in”, according to The Times.

Further restrictions on industrial action could also leave Truss “out of step with public opinion”, said Politico.

“There’s a lot of public sympathy for strikers,” former government adviser James Frayne, now director of polling consultancy Public First, told the news site. “Most people think, well, if I was facing a [real-terms] 10% or 20% pay cut, and was in a job where I could strike and that might make a difference, I would do it.”

Left-wing news site Novara Media said Truss was “trying to completely neuter the unions so they’re left looking weak, rather than giving them a blanket ban they can rally against”. Strikes would become “mere token protests”, with workers having “no ability to place pressure upon an employer”, wrote Gregor Gall, a visiting professor of industrial relations at Leeds University.

RMT union boss Mick Lynch has described the tightening of strike laws as “an attack on civil liberties and human rights”.

Lynch told Sky News last month that “if there is no trade union freedom, and it’s impossible to conduct rules and industrial action, people will have to go in other ways, they will have to think of other means of doing it”.

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