Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 54 Number 4, February 24, 2024 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Right to Strike

Opposition to Anti-Worker Legislation Develops

The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act, introduced by Business Secretary Grant Shapps, received Royal Asset on July 20 last year after being railroaded through Parliament.

By establishing Minimum Service Levels, the Act created new executive powers to limit workers' ability to strike, covering the NHS, education, fire and rescue, border security, and nuclear decommissioning.

The Act grants the Business Secretary the power to arbitrarily set the minimum levels of service legally required to be maintained during industrial action in these sectors. When unions announce strike action, it grants employers the power to determine how many and which kinds of workers are required to deliver these minimum levels.

Employers issue Work Notices to unions, with which unions must comply to avoid legal liability and protect workers from dismissal.

Shapps has issued a number of Minimum Service Regulations under the Act, which are the statutory instruments that set the service levels. On December 7, he decreed that rail strikes, whether in infrastructure or on the trains themselves, must maintain 40% of normal timetabled service. Also on December 7, he put in place minimum service levels for ambulance and NHS Patient Transport services. Neither of these is actually yet in force. However, on December 11, he set levels for border security, which went into force the following day.

Most recently, the government set out its draft minimum requirements for the fire service in England and Wales on February 8. Fire and rescue workers will have to ensure they crew 73% of fire engines and vehicles during strikes and attend all emergencies as usual. This legislation is currently being considered by parliament. The government plans for the minimum levels to come into effect the following day after the legislation is made [1].

"This is an outrageous and authoritarian plan to seek to ban strikes in the Fire and Rescue Service. The government wants this in place so that it can attack the pay and conditions of firefighters and other workers," responded FBU general secretary Matt Wrack [2]. "It's one of the worst assaults in the last century on the rights of working people to defend themselves."

"The Fire Brigades Union will resist this dictatorial legislation in every way possible," he said.

On January 25, the 40th anniversary of the GCHQ trade union ban, the PCS and TUC organised a march attended by some 5,000 people in Cheltenham [3]. The ban was enforced by the Thatcher government on January 25, 1984, in the same period as the historic miners' strike, under the pretext of "security concerns". Trade union members at GCHQ were banned from being members of a trade union, and were told to resign their memberships or be sacked. While most complied with the order, fourteen refused and were dismissed. The law was not reversed until 1997.

The march was used to protest against the present attack on workers' rights. At the demonstration, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: "Margaret Thatcher's decision to ban trade unions at GCHQ was part of her attack on unions in general, but these workers weren't prepared to accept it.

"Their principled decision not to give up their trade union membership saw them pay a massive price.

"Now, 40 years on, as we celebrate their courage and determination, a different Conservative government is attacking trade union rights - this time they're introducing Minimum Service Levels in a naked attack on our right to strike.

"Our message today is the same as it was in 1984 - we shall fight this injustice for however long it takes." [4]

While Minimum Service Levels have not yet been used, their use has been threatened. Aslef rail workers held five days of rolling strikes between January 30 and February 5, together with overtime ban during that period. The long-running dispute over pay and conditions first led to strike action in July 2022. There have been no formal talks since April 2023, after train operator LNER offered a mere 4% pay rise over two years conditional on agreeing to unacceptable sweeping changes to training and work patterns.

During the present round of strikes, LNER floated the idea of issuing a Work Notice to enforce the levels as a strike-breaking move. Aslef responded by announcing an additional five days of strikes, but management withdrew the threat and the union cancelled the further strikes. In an attempt to egg-on employers, as well as to manipulate public opinion, the government stated its disappointment and that Downing Street "expects" the new laws to be used [5].

Schools and educational institutions have also come out against implementing the new legislation. United Learning, for example, England's largest academy trust, has vowed not to issue work orders to striking staff if "inflammatory" and "self-defeating" new strike laws are implemented in schools. It said the proposal was "wrong in principle and in its details and likely to be self- defeating in practice". Employers would not be required to issue work orders, and United Learning said it was "inconceivable that any employer will in fact choose to do so". The Confederation of School Trusts has also warned its members fear MSLs will "undermine" rights to freedom of association, "particularly for special school and primary staff" and have a "severe and deleterious impact on good industrial relations". [6]

The Minimum Service Levels Act is an anti-strike law that aims to deprive workers of their right to defend their interests and curb the movement that has been developing under their slogan of Enough is Enough. It was enacted in a situation where key front-line workers have the overwhelming support of the public against unacceptable pay and working conditions, and where there is growing resistance to the privatisation of public services. The situation highlights the need for the voice of working people not only to be heard and taken into account, but to be the decisive factor. The people must organise to block further restructuring of the state aimed at strengthening executive powers to serve narrow private interests. This is the spirit of Enough is Enough, the affirmation that the movement of the workers is not some temporary opposition to being sidelined and driven into poverty, but is an expression of social responsibility which working people feel towards their wor k and to its part in the necessary renovation of society.


1. For details of these Minimum Service Regulations, see:

2. "Firefighters' union responds to 'authoritarian' minimum service levels for fire and rescue", FBU, February 8, 2024

3. "GCHQ union ban's 40th anniversary marked by protest in Cheltenham",BBC News, January 27 2024

4. "'Protect the right to strike' march marks 40th anniversary of GCHQ union ban", Morning Star, January 26, 2024

5. "Rishi Sunak disappointed new rail strike law not used, says No 10", BBC News, January 29, 2024

6. Largest trust would shun 'inflammatory' new strike laws", Schools Week, February 8, 2024


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