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Is the Right to Strike Under attack in Britain?

Written by Ailís Neligan for the Employment Section.




The Right to Strike is enshrined in Article 11 of the ECHR, allowing people the freedom to join trade unions for the protection of their interests. Industrial action, such as striking, is protected and regulated by the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. Whilst such laws and treaties welcome strikes within certain bounds, recent political and legal developments in the UK have suggested otherwise. Read on to witnesss how these changes place workers within the UK in a precarious position.

In the past year, the UK has seen more strikes than it has since the 1980s. These strikes are not restricted to one sector. Workers from all career paths have been striking for better pay, hours, and security. This includes everyone from train operators to bus drivers to junior doctors. Undoubtedly, this wave of industrial action has led to criticism from employers and the government. The Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, told MPs last year: “If union leaders continue to be unreasonable, then it is my duty to take action to protect the lives and livelihoods of the British public.”

 

New Legal Restrictions 

This came after the Government first introduced the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill in October of 2022, which was signed into law in July of 2023 as the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023. This law infringes on workers' rights and ability to strike. The Act gives the Business Secretary the power to introduce a minimum level of service required by striking workers in sectors such as health, fire and rescue, education and transport. Furthermore, within those sectors, employers can issue a "work notice" to specify who must work during the strike. What constitutes the 'minimum service level required' is not defined within the Bill and is left in the hands of the government. 

 

The intention is to force workers, who have legally and democratically voted for a strike, to work during these strikes. This undermines the core purpose of a strike: for workers to withhold their labour power in order to force employers to listen to their demands. This Act essentially prohibits workers from withholding this labour-power. Workers who don't comply can then be fired with no claim for unfair dismissal. Any trade union that fails or refuses to meet these requirements, or take 'reasonable steps' to force its members to comply, is also allowed to be sued.

 

Criticisms of the Act 

The Act has come under immense criticism and is extremely controversial. The Scottish transport Minister has already declared that Scotland would not be enforcing the Act as it should be considered to be an erosion of devolution. Labour has also declared that if they come into power, they would repeal the Act within the first 100 days. The Trade Union Congress (TUC) claimed that its research found that this Act would risk undermining the striking abilities of 1 in 5 British workers- approximately 5.5 million people. 

 

There is also worry that this may be a violation of international law. The Act is potentially a violation of Article 11 of the ECHR (the right to freedom of association) as in Ognevenko v Russia, it was established that Article 11 protected the right to strike. Moreover, the Court in this case held that 'transport' did not constitute an essential service- the grounds on which the Act uses to restrict the striking power of rail and bus workers. 

 

Putting the Act into effect

 Now the government has said that it plans to activate the Act to restrict the right of workers to strike before Christmas. In proposals, the government has stated that 40% of trains should remain in operation on strike days, as well as restrictions placed on border security and ambulance workers. This was criticised by Sara Gorton, Head of Health at UNISON, which represents ambulance workers, who commented:

 

"Measures are already in place to protect patients during action. Sacking ambulance workers on strike won't get the millions awaiting hospital treatment any closer to the top of the list."

 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said in a statement:

 

"We are doing everything in our power to stop unions de-railing Christmas for millions of people. This legislation will ensure more people will be able to travel to see their friends and family and get the emergency care they need."

 

Conclusion

Restricting the ability of workers to strike, threatening to fire those who do, and appearing to violate international law will all have an extensive effect on worker's rights in the country. It opens the door to union busting and human rights violations: the right to strike is clearly under attack in the UK.







References

The Trade Union Congress (TUC), TUC vows to fight Tory attacks on the right to strike “tooth and nail” as strikes bill passes, (TUC, 18 July 2023)

 

Prime Minister's Office, 10 Downing Street, Strike laws to be passed to protect vital public services over Christmas, (Gov.uk, 6 November 2023), <Strike laws to be passed to protect vital public services over Christmas - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

 

Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act, 2023

 

David Bol, SNP says Holyrood won't comply with "unnecessary" strikes crackdown, (The Herald, 10 October 2023), <https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/23845508.snp-says-holyrood-wont-comply-unnecessary-strikes-crackdown/>

 

Cabinet Secretary for Wellbeing Economy, Fair Work and Energy, Neil Gray, Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill: further letter to UK Government, (Gov.scot, 2 July 2023), 

 

Sara Gorton, Government’s desperate strike move won’t solve any NHS problems, (UNISON, 6 November 2023),  <https://www.unison.org.uk/news/2023/11/governments-desperate-strike-move-wont-solve-any-nhs-problems/>

 

Ognevenko v Russia App no 44873/09 (ECtHR, 06 May 2019) [76]

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