There’s scarcely a soul in the land who is not aware of the shocking state of relations between government and trade unions in this country. Indeed, almost all of us have been affected in one way or another. For most it has been the relatively minor inconvenience of having a train service cancelled because of striking rail workers. For some it has been infinitely more serious and even life changing as a result of industrial action by NHS staff or ambulance drivers. Now the government has said enough is enough. New laws are needed, it says, to restrict the powers of public sector unions. The opposition says this is seriously dangerous territory. Not only would it remove a fundamental right – the right to strike – but it would give ministers the power to tell public sector unions how to conduct their relations with the employers.
There is something on which all sides are agreed: the nation has been enduring the worst wave of disruption because of strikes by the big public sector unions since the dark days of the early 1970s. There have been walkouts by railway workers, firefighters, teachers, border officials and, above all, by NHS staff and ambulance drivers. The NHS was already struggling desperately to cope with the fall-out from the covid pandemic, the worst flu season for a decade and many more years of bureaucratic incompetence. The industrial action, many believe, has turned a crisis into a catastrophe.
There has been greater disruption in NHS emergency care than at any time in living memory. People who have suffered a heart attack or stroke have had to endure an average wait of 93 minutes in England for an ambulance to arrive. That’s the worst since records began. Doctors say hundreds of patients are dying every week because of the delays and chaotic conditions in A&E departments. Half of all patients arriving at big A&E units have to wait longer than the target of four hours to see a doctor. More than 54,000 severely ill patients spent at least 12 hours waiting on a trolley in hospital corridors for a bed to become available on a ward.
The Royal College of nursing has warned that “corridor care” is becoming the norm. Tim Gardner of the Health Foundation said behind these numbers are patients left in pain, people enduring unnecessary suffering and, in some cases, lives tragically lost. Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, has said the terrifying truth is that patients in an emergency “can no longer be sure the NHS will be there for them.” After 13 years of Conservative mismanagement, he says, expecting them to fix this crisis is “like asking the arsonist to put out the fire they started. It is not going to happen.” Daisy Cooper, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, described the situation as “a horror show of the government's creation”.
The question is whether one reaction to the crisis should be to introduce new laws which would, in the words of The Times, “balance the right to withdraw labour with the need to protect the lives and livelihoods of others.” The proposed legislation, it believes, is right in principle but the challenge will be to make sure that it works in practice. In other words, whatever action is called for by a public sector union there would have to be an adequate level of coverage for fire, ambulance and rail services to make sure that lives are not put at risk. Other sectors covered by the legislation would include education, nuclear decommissioning and border security.
Under the new law, employers would be able to sue unions and sack staff if they failed to deliver on “minimum service” requirements. As the law stands, employees have blanket protection against being sacked if they are told to work but refuse to do so. Unions would have to pay damages.
What’s already clear is that it would be easier to define minimum service levels in some sectors than in others. The Royal College of Nursing and unions representing ambulance workers have all reached voluntary agreements with hospitals to protect emergency services and lifesaving care. But it would be infinitely more complex to keep the railways running because there are so many different rail companies and unions and so many different agreements covering everything from drivers to signals operators. You can’t run a railway if even a small proportion of the signals are being operated.
The unions are, unsurprisingly, wholly opposed to any new legislation governing the right to strike. They say that not only will it antagonise union members and lead to a further deterioration in industrial relations, but it will inevitably lead to increased disruption because any walkouts would end up being spread over more days.
The government argues that there’s plenty of evidence that new laws would work. They point out that several other European countries have had similar laws in place for many years. In Spain, for example, a law was passed only last year which requires airlines and their staff to provide a minimum level of service. In France there have long been laws which give local authorities the right to “requisition any property or service, require any person necessary to maintain public order hygiene, tranquilly or safety.”
But the view on the left is that the government is picking an unnecessary fight with the unions for purely political reasons. Martin Kettle of The Guardian says its first reason is to rally a fractious Tory Party more firmly behind Rishi Sunak and the second is that the unions will overreact and make life more difficult for Keir Starmer. He believes the first reason is the most persuasive, but there’s something going for the second reason too. Although public opinion is sympathetic to striking nurses and perhaps some other strikers too, in general strikes are unpopular.
But he sees the proposals as a “dangerous piece of law-making.” That’s not just because it is another attack on the right to strike, which is already heavily circumscribed by law, but because it goes further. It allows employers to sack workers who defy a “work notice” by striking. In effect, says Kettle, the new bill “compels someone to work.” And because it is drafted in imprecise and sweeping terms it would effectively allow ministers to “rule industrial relations by decree, and not only in what are currently regarded as essential services.”
These, he says, are broad categories covering many activities: “Not all are provided by the state, so hundreds of private firms will be directly affected by ministerial decisions. In some sectors, ‘life and limb’ cover is required by law already. Yet strikes in education, for example, place the public at less direct risk than strikes in the fire service could do. Other industries, such as fuel or even banking, could be regarded as essential services but are not covered in the bill.” In short, he says, it risks creating many more problems than it purports to solve.
What is your reaction to all this? Are you one of the many whose lives have been disrupted by strikes? Perhaps you haven’t been able to get to work or go on holiday or, more seriously, you have been affected by delays in the ambulance services?
To what extent is your tolerance of strikers influenced by how much they already earn relative to the importance of their job? No doubt we would all take the view that you cannot put a price on the value of the dedicated nurse caring for our sick child or the ambulance driver racing against time to reach our aged mother who has collapsed with a heart attack or the brave fire fighter charging into the blazing building. But what of the signalman, responsible for our train reaching its destination safely?
And how do you react when they threaten to strike? Do you wish them well or do you call them selfish?
And what would it take for you to support a law that bans them from striking?
Do let us know.