The bill has generated some of the most trenchant and widespread criticism of any recent proposed legislation, but is such a reaction justified and what will be the practical ramifications of the bill if it eventually becomes law?
Legislating your way out
First up is the concept of legislating your way out of an industrial relations calamity. And to use sporting parlance, the government has “lost the dressing room” on this one.
While turnouts in strike ballots in some education unions have struggled to get above to 50% threshold required for lawful action, this should not detract from very substantial turnouts and majorities for strike action in posts, transport, health (nurses, ambulance workers), universities and many government departments or agencies – along with those who did vote in the ultimately unsuccessful ballots by teaching unions.
The iron law of IR problems, like all of life’s big issues, is that solutions are negotiated not imposed. The new bill doesn’t change that truism.
“You can’t legislate away dissatisfaction” said the TUC and the Recruitment and Employment Confederation added that “wildcat action, poorer service and the emergence of unaffiliated, more problematic groups than trade unions” could result (£)
Unlawful (or just plain awful)?
Second, the shout that this bill is “almost certainly” unlawful.
And indeed it almost certainly is. The Human Rights Act and international charters to which the UK is a signatory to under the auspices of, for example, the International Labour Organisation would both be engaged were the bill to become law.
There is, of course, a clear way to square that circle: Abolish the HRA, withdraw from the ILO. The government has more-than-mooted it might well do at least one of these things. Let’s just say that attempts to make the Minimum Services Bill legal would be rather more problematic than the bill itself. Or, more simply, “Stop digging!”
Third, the companion to all controversial pieces of legislation – unintended (or unstated) consequences.
In this case, the practical impact of the bill being far wider than government acknowledges.
Suggestions, by unions, that their members would end up being effectively conscripted to work on pain of dismissal are sadly well-founded. Dismissals will also exacerbate tensions and raises the question of how services will then be delivered, especially in a still-tight labour market?
Notions that unions would be able (let alone willing) to negotiate on how to best undermine their own strike action to make it legally compliant, fundamentally misunderstand the purpose and working of unions as democratic representative organisations. And thus, arguably, lawful industrial action becomes impossible.
Myths of minimum standards
Fourth, the myth of minimum service levels.
We are not comparing like-with-like here. Not in terms of union density, in terms of the legal constraints on strike action, in terms of the negotiating environment.
“It is easier to organise Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union than it is to organise a strike in the UK because the thresholds are so high,” was a colourful response from Pablo Sánchez Centellas, of the European Federation of Public Service Unions.
And using flawed comparisons to support your case is surely both profoundly unhelpful and counter-productive.
Under the bill, the ultimate arbiter of what minimum service levels should apply appears to be the Secretary of State. You could argue that this is a workable model of accountability, but to me it just seems to underline that these service levels are in fact political matters, not operational or objective ones.
Again, using flawed comparisons to support your case is surely both profoundly unhelpful and counter-productive.
The whole notion of minimum service levels is also undermined when the only safe level of service is 100% of the resource.
This sets up a possible scenario where the Secretary of State declares that everyone needs to be at their work in order for the minimum service requirements to be met. Well, tell me how that is different from an arbitrary withdrawal of the right to strike? (It’s ok – I won’t hold my breath).
Wrong time, wrong place, wrong bill
Fifth and finally, is the context into which the Minimum Services Bill has been introduced.
The driver of the action that the bill is a response to is a pernicious cost of living crisis that impacts poorer people most.
But the debate goes beyond pay and is also firmly about the future of the services these members deliver1. And both have great traction with the public, as fellow workers and as service users.
The most damning critique of the bill of all is when these two factors combine. It is the argument that, never mind strike days, it would be a great development to have minimum service levels on days when everyone is working normally. That’s how bad services are.
“Today’s strikes express despair at the degradation of public services and the impossibility of earning a living on wages that are shrinking in real terms,” was one newspaper editorial, adding “The prime minister responds by attacking trade union rights because he lacks the imagination and the compassion to develop better strategies.”
Or, in a nutshell: Britain isn’t working and the Minimum Services Bill is part of the problem.
The TUC’s campaign on the Minimum Services Bill is here. There is also activity organised by individual unions.
For example, Postal workers – https://www.cwu.org/rmgstrikeinfo