The repeated worker strikes that have been taking place since last year have undisputedly impacted millions of people across the country. Rail workers, postal workers, some NHS workers, teachers, border force staff and barristers are just some of the public workers that have been striking or are expected to strike.
Generally, workers are striking due to pay and working conditions. For example, the trade union for university staff, UNISON, has said that workers are striking because they want the use of zero hours and temporary contracts to end and excessive workloads to be relinquished.
As the cost-of-living increases, it is likely that the strikes, and associated disruptions, will continue.
On 10 January 2023, the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill was introduced in parliament by the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
This Bill is a direct response to the numerous strikes that have taken place and because of trade union action. It is intended to ensure that key public services will be legally required to deliver a minimum level of service during industrial action.
What the new law means
Once enacted, the government will be able to set minimum service levels in specific sectors including health services, fire and rescue, education, transport, decommissioning of nuclear installations and management of radioactive waste and spent fuel and border security.
Employers in those sectors would then have to have a minimum number of workers that will be required to continue working during a strike, to comply with the new legislation.
Business Secretary Grant Shapps said “The first job of any government is to keep the public safe. Because whilst we absolutely believe in the ability to strike, we are duty-bound to protect the lives and livelihoods of the British people.”
The government will consult on what minimum service levels will be required in the relevant service areas. This will mean that key transport services and emergency services do not entirely shut down on strike days, reducing the disruption to the public and the public’s safety also, in respect of medical care.
What the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill will mean for employers
When the Bill becomes law, it will only affect employers in the specified sectors and the government has said that it wishes to reach voluntary agreements wherever possible. Specifically, the government will first consult on fire, ambulance and rail services, with the hope of reaching voluntary agreements on the other sectors included in the Bill. However, the new legislation will mean that the government can step in and set minimum service levels as and when required.
Trade unions will be required to follow the new legislation once it is enacted. If they do not do so, employers in the relevant sectors may have the right to seek an injunction to prevent the strike from taking place. Alternatively, employers would be able to bring a claim against the trade unions and seek damages after the event if trade unions refuse to comply with their legal obligations.
Note: employees are currently protected from being fired for participating in official industrial action strikes. If an employee is fired for striking and the strike was for 12 weeks or less, this would likely be an automatic unfair dismissal and the employee could be awarded compensation and/or be reinstated.
Many trade unions have already expressed their intention to challenge the government’s proposals and have raised concerns that this new legislation is incompatible with true democracy and is an infringement of human rights. As such, a timeline for the new legislation coming into force is still currently unclear.