Minimum Service Levels

Campaign For Trade Union Freedom Rally on the Minimum Services Level Bill

Pete Whitelegg

At the beginning of this year the government published its long promised anti trade union legislation, the “Minimum Service Levels Bill”. This bill was contained in the Tories 2019 election manifesto. Originally the bill was only applicable to the transport sector. However, since then the economic landscape has changed dramatically. What with the Covid lockdown, the war in Ukraine, the short-lived Truss governments disastrous budget coupled with the effects of Brexit, the UK is experiencing one of the harshest economic declines in Western Europe.  

Since 2019 workers throughout the UK economy have received little in the way of pay rises. What little they have received has been considerably less than the rate of inflation. In the public sector many workers have had no pay rises for 4 years.  And in the case of a considerable proportion of public sector employees the austerity policies of previous governments have significantly reduced the value of their wages since at least 2008. With inflation in double digits, and rising, the living standards of ordinary working people was being eroded at the fastest rate seen in this country for over 100 years.

The combination of all these issues led to the largest outbreak of industrial unrest for thirty years. First was the RMT, quickly followed by ASLEF, then the Communication Workers Union, teachers etc. Unions in the health services began to ballot their members, including the nurses, who for the first time in their history voted for strike action. With this wave of industrial unrest, the response of the government was not an attempt rectify the inherent problems within our creaking economy but to double down on the already stringent anti trade union laws. Instead of the Minimum Service Levels legislation just applying to the transport sector it now applies to all public-sector workers who were deemed essential to the functioning of the economy.

In January the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom with the TUC launched a campaign to defeat the bill and to highlight the draconian nature of the legislation, starting with a conference on 24 January “Defend the Right to Strike”at the National Education Union building in London.  John McDonnell was one of the first to speak. His view was the Tories were an unstable political union of various factions within parliament. In part the legislation was the leadership’s attempt to act as a rallying point to unite various factions within parliament. In McDonnell’s view there is considerable unease concerning this legislation. He pointed out it is badly drawn up and disproportionate with many backbench Tories agreeing. He intimated there were alliances across the house to this effect. Amendments, both in the commons and the lords, would be tabled to derail the legislation. But in the end, he said, it was going to be up to the trade union movement and the Labour party to remove the anti-trade union legislation and create a new framework for industrial relations.

Prison Officers Association General Secretary, Steve Gillian, explained prison officers have had minimum service levels since 1994. Contrary to the government’s view they severely limit the effectiveness of any industrial action.  When the association did take action under health and safety legislation the government took them to court and they were fined £200,000 as the action was deemed to be strike action. Steve Gillian went on to say it was high time the trade unions held the Labour party to account. Nothing short of the removal of the restrictive trade union legislation. This commitment cannot be in the form of campaign promises but will have to be in the manifesto. This sentiment was echoed by all speakers. 

Prof Keith Ewing went on to highlight the extraordinary nature of what the government was proposing. Not since the seventeenth century has so much arbitrary power been invested in the Secretary of State. Under this legislation, once a vote for strike action has been taken, the Secretary of State can conscript workers to break a strike. If they refuse then they will lose all employment protection, the union can be fined or sanctioned by the government and could even be sued. Unions will also have an unprecedented obligation to ensure its members break a strike. The union will have to take all reasonable actions to ensure that its members comply with the work notice, but nowhere in the legislation is there any definition of what “reasonable “is. The employers only have to “regard” the views of the union. Nor is there any mechanism for the judicial review of any disagreements about what a “minimum” service level is. That is left solely to the discretion of the Secretary of State. The legislation is riddled with this imprecise language. 

The Secretary of State can amend any part of the legislation through regulations. He/she can revoke, amend, or change the legislation or any of the definitions contained within it. He has total control over the definition of all aspects of work, he could even decide the definition of work, or for that matter what education is. Essentially, once a union in the public sector has voted for strike action its members and the union itself become agents of the state. If the union or its members do not fully comply with the notice of work, it is a real possibility the union could be put out of business and its members out of work at the hands of the government. 

The Government maintains this legislation is necessary because of the unprecedented disruption to people’s lives due to strike action in the public sector. And the legislation itself is proportionate and is in place across many countries in mainland Europe. The Minimum Service Levels legislation proposed for the UK far exceeds anything in Europe.

In Europe MSL (Minimum Service Levels) are not imposed upon the unions and the employers by the state but are instead subject to a process of negotiation between the relevant parties. Also, unlike in the UK, most of western Europe has a protected right to strike, both in the public and private sector. In Europe, if you go on strike the government cannot remove either your employment rights or your employment. Your employment can only be removed by the institution that employs you.

The Minimum Service Levels Bill, if passed, would be a hammer blow to the Trade union movement. It would clearly reduce the effectiveness of any industrial action. The Campaign for Trade Union Freedom, the TUC and the union appear to have made a commitment to remove all anti trade union legislation from the statute books. To ensure this happens all the unions involved in this campaign have committed to ensure this is contained in the Labour Party’s manifesto.

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