Akkarasorn Opilan, Publications Executive of UCL JLAP
In 2017, the United Nations stated that the “fundamental right to strike must be preserved”. Yet, we see this year that the United Kingdom’s parliament is pushing for an anti-strike bill at a time where living costs have soared, prompting key workers to strike. On 16th January of this year, the legislation has passed its second reading, with 309 votes to 249.
The anti-strike legislation.
The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill was introduced to Parliament on January 10, which would restrict union members’ right to strike. The Commons rushed this legislation in two days without proper MP scrutiny–a point that the opposition raised. The greatest amount of criticism has been pointed out by the Union. This bill, if passed, would hold higher thresholds for launching industrial action, and “companies may be able to sue unions if minimum service levels are not met.” As for employers, they would be able to “restrict the protection of trade unions from legal action (e.g., unfair dismissal). Mr. Shapps, who introduced the bill, has said that “the government has a duty to protect the public’s access to essential public services… because whilst we absolutely believe in the right to strike, we’re duty bound to protect the lives and the livelihoods of the British people… So I’m introducing a bill that would give the Government the power to ensure that vital public services will have to maintain a basic function by delivering minimum safety levels, ensuring that lives and livelihoods are not lost.” On the contrary, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) said that the bill was “an attack on human rights and civil liberties.”
This legislation will possibly affect the following industries (as specified in s. 234B (4)): health and services, fire and rescue services, education, transport, and border security. The thresholds to hold strikes may be increased, as the bill increases the need for “work notice”, which must be submitted to employers on the “7th day before the earliest strike date” and the work notice must “identify the persons required to work during the strike in order to secure that the levels of service under the minimum service regulations are provided, and specify the work required to be carried out by them during the strike in order to secure that those levels of service are provided.”
The current draft for the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill can be accessed via this link: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/58-03/0222/220222.pdf
Other than this restrictive anti-strike bill, amendments to the Public Order Bill are also under the stage of passing through the House of Lords. This amendment will increase the police of powers to intervene against protestors. The Prime Minister’s office held a press release, stating that this amendment would “help limit the ability of protesters to inflict misery on the public”, a clear intention to label key worker protestors as a disorderly nuisance group. With this change, police officers would not need to wait for disruptions to occur before clamping down on protests. The director of Liberty, Martha Spurrier, states that “allowing the police to shut down protests before any disruptions has taken place simply on the off-chance that it might sets a dangerous precedent.” However, the government would need to be able to justify that the passing of such amendments would not be contradicting the interpretation of European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The current, controversial Public Order Bill, can be accessed through this link: https://bills.parliament.uk/publications/49143/documents/2653
The fundamental right to strike?
It is crucial to note that the right to strike and the right to protest are not explicitly stated in statute. However, they are seen collectively from the ECHR’s article 5,10, and 11. As such, it is not too far to state that such rights are a fundamental part to British democracy and liberty. The large number of workers striking highlights the disease of a broken economy, where the government priorities the growth of the economy over the living condition of its people. A couple of years ago, the government had praised key workers like the NHS for their service during the pandemic. Yet, once the country is reviving from COVID-19, the NHS workers are labeled as “selfish” for striking for better and adequate pay.
Without the right to strike, democracy and liberty is crippled as workers cannot voice their outcries and dissatisfaction against the government. Under the Trade Union and Labor Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 (along with Article 11 of ECHR), trade union members are required to case a ballot before striking. This act applies across England, Wales, and Scotland, which protects workers who are peacefully working.
What is happening?
Many workers from different sectors have announced to strike in 2023. This includes the rail, Royal Mail, NHS workers, teachers/professors, and civil servants. 120,000 members of the National Education Union (NEU) voted to strike for seven days between February and March–which strikes may occur up to eighteen days. Teachers and professors are striking over pay conditions, considering the recent inflation rate being higher than 9% towards the last quarter of 2022. The NEU want a pay rise above 12%, whereas the current wage has been settled to increase by 5%. As for the NHS, the Royal College for Nursing (RCN) are calling for a 19% rise in wage, with nurses in England and Wales already receiving a 4.75% increase–an amount still less than what nurses has received in the past considering the rise in inflation. Lastly, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) announced that the median pay for its worker is £31,000, which was lower than the figure published by the Network Rail figure.