1st Feb strike rally in Newcastle | Photo: Alex Snowdon 1st Feb strike rally in Newcastle | Photo: Alex Snowdon

We need to build real action against the Minimum Service Levels Bill on 15 March, argues Richard Allday

Last month (January 10), the government laid out its Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill. Less than a week later, it rushed through its second hearing. It is possibly the most blatant attack on workers’ ability to defend themselves in fifty years. It is no coincidence that the areas specifically mentioned in the Bill are precisely those sectors currently involved in strike action.

The sectors the legislation specifies are:

  • health services
  • education services
  • fire and rescue services
  • transport services
  • decommissioning of nuclear installations and management of radioactive waste and spent fuel
  • border security

But it is not limited to those sectors. Shapps specifically reserves to himself the powers to add to the list as he sees fit.

The main provisions of the Bill are that the minister will decide (after ‘consultations’ – with whom is not specified) the minimum service levels (MSLs) required in any given dispute. The employer will then decide how many workers, in which categories, are required to satisfy these levels, and will serve a ‘Work Notice’ on the union involved. The union will then be responsible for making sure their striking members comply! Or face draconian fines, up to £1M for each breach. The individual strikers, if they do not comply, can then be sacked, with no right to appeal or legal redress.

It is the most significant attack on workers’ rights since the 1971 Industrial Relations Act, and it shares many of the same assumptions and aims. The central (well-founded) assumption is: if you wish to whip workers into line,

a) seek to put distance between government and sanction;

b) allow your class fighters to choose when, where, and who to attack;

c) use the workers’ own structures – the trade-union bureaucracy – to do your dirty work for you.

Hence the emphasis in the Bill that the role of government is simply to ‘objectively’ assess, after due consultation, the MSLs required in any given dispute. The Bill states that the Secretary of State must consult over the MSLs, but covers his back by adding (§234F) ‘such persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate’, so no danger of pointless bickering there, then. It will be for the employer to trigger the punitive process, leaving Shapps to mutter “Nothing to do with me, guv”.

It also has the advantage for the Tories that they can pick and choose in which disputes they wish to interfere, and with which unions they wish to pick a fight, thus avoiding the danger of ‘rogue’ employers picking fights off their own back. (And it means that employers can likewise pick and choose whether they wish to serve a Work Notice.)

Possibly even more worrying, §234E gives employers the right to sue a union for damages, where the union has not taken ‘all reasonable steps to ensure that all members of the union who are identified in the work notice comply with the notice.’ It appears to limit those damages to the extra loss suffered by not complying (so a field day for the lawyers then). But it does not state that only employers who serve a Work Notice can sue for damages.

Now consider: Unite ballots its members in ground handling, security, and the fire service at Heathrow Airport. They are not employed by Heathrow Airport Limited, but by an outside contractor. Shapps considers and consults. The striking members are security guards (so affecting border security); firefighters (so covered by fire and rescue); and baggage handlers (so affecting aircraft security, so passenger safety). He issues MSLs … The outside contractor serves a Work Notice. The union complies. The contractor is satisfied. But Heathrow Airport Ltd sues Unite for £45M, claiming that the union did not take all reasonable steps, and that is the loss they suffered through the airport closure.

Or BA pull the same stunt because of cancelled flights.

Or Lufthansa, and BA and HAL and …

Weak Responses

It is quite clear that this Bill is intended to chain the trade unions to ineffective action. It is clear that relying on parliamentary opposition is a dead duck. If you don’t believe that, think on this: the Speaker of the House made the following ruling, in the second hearing of the Bill, on January 15, that because of the number of MPs wishing to speak in the debate, MPs would be limited to three minutes!

Let me run that past you again: because the bill is so controversial, debate was limited to three minutes per MP. How does that work?

So, no use relying on (Sir) Keith Starmer then. What about the trade unions?

Perhaps the best answer to that is provided by Unison, the UK’s largest public-sector union. Its website posted ‘Three things you need to know’ about the Bill. The first defines the sectors covered (fair enough, although it doesn’t mention that more sectors can be added at the whim of the Secretary of State).

The second is the consequences for trade unions of the Bill’s provision for ‘Work Notices’ and the financial implications for the union. It includes this (probably unconsciously frank) prediction: ‘It makes unions financially liable unless they attempt to force striking workers to go to work, which will have a chilling effect on … trade unions’[emphasis added]. So there is part one of Shapps’ plan working already: the need to hit trade unions where the bureaucracy fears most, the finances, and get them to police their own members.

Bringing up the rear, the members make an appearance at the fag end of the ‘Three things’.

Unison’s commitment to opposing this attack on workers’ rights is amply demonstrated by the actions it proposes: ‘Unison is calling on MPs to reject these proposals’ (good luck with that one Christine!); and it calls on members to sign the TUC petition, which ‘urges’ Rishi Sunak to withdraw the Bill.

This really isn’t halfway good enough. In fact, other than supporting the TUC’s day of protest, the total contribution of the trade-union leaderships in the UK has been so much hot air. The most radical action I have been able to discover has been the RMT’s call for protests outside Tory MPs constituency offices.

I am not knocking the emphasis on publicising the draconian qualities of the bill, but when even the Star, the Mirror, the Financial Times and The Guardian are agreed on that, there seems little added value in putting information on union websites. It reaches the activist core, but gives them little to organise around.

How we fight back

Two practical steps every union could, and should, take are: wherever there is a live strike mandate covering 15 March (Budget Day), unions should be bending heaven and earth to ensure they are striking on that day. The National Education Union has called a nation-wide strike and national demonstration in London for that day. The PCS have now done the same. Every union should be organising now in support of that demonstration, and broaden it to be an anti-Tory demonstration calling for decent pay across the public sector. The model motion drafted by Counterfire’s News From The Frontline was produced for precisely this reason.

The second action unions should be taking, as a matter of urgency, is to point out to their membership in general that this Bill is a threat to them. It is not true that it is limited to the six sectors identified. The Bill will give the minister the power to intervene in any strike, in any sector, decide the Minimum Service Levels (MSLs) required, and bingo, the employer can serve a ‘Work Notice’ on the relevant union.

There is no need to demonstrate a danger to public safety (the word ‘safety’ does not even appear in the Bill, despite Grant Shapps justifying it with reference to public safety in his press release). There is no reason to believe that it would be confined to the sectors named, nor is there any reason to believe that the impact in those sectors would be as limited as some unions seem to believe. ‘The health sector’ does not just cover the NHS, or those companies providing outsourced ancillary services in our hospitals. Care homes would fall within the remit; warehouse workers employed by Unipart on the NHS Supply Chain logistics contract could be forced to strikebreak in their campaign for a decent wage; Environmental Health Inspectors, or the administrative staff behind them … and on, and on.

‘Transport’ obviously covers the rail, but presumably Tube workers, tram drivers, bus drivers etc would be caught in the net; lorry drivers are transport workers too; as are those working in international transport, so dockers and airport workers, plus flight crew and flight attendants. How long would it take BA, or Heathrow Airport Ltd, to convince Shapps of the need to establish MSLs?

P&O has already proved that major employers do not feel the need to abide by the law; when will our side take a leaf out of their book?

The 1971 Industrial Relations Act – which saw five dockers locked up in Pentonville for picketing to protect dockers’ jobs – was not defeated by legal challenge, or parliamentary debate, or even by TU General Secretaries denouncing it. It was defeated by mass action by trade-union members, often in defiance of their own union bureaucracies. We need to rebuild that defiance, and we need to do it as a matter of urgency.

The 15 March can be the first step in that campaign. Let us make it large and loud.

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Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage.  A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.

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