UK union leader’s mass defiance warning over ‘attempt to ban strikes’

<span>Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

New government anti-strike laws for public sector workers could prompt the start of a campaign of mass defiance not seen since the 1970s, a union leader has warned.

Matt Wrack, the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, said the minimum service levels legislation passed earlier this year was effectively a ban on strikes, and the biggest attack on the rights of workers since the second world war.

Speaking to the Guardian ahead of a specially convened TUC summit to discuss how to respond to the law, Wrack said a campaign of non-compliance was one of the options under consideration.

“The reality of the legislation is now becoming clear. In key sectors, employers will be able to issue work notices compelling a majority of employees to work even after a democratic vote for strike action.

“That’s effectively trying to outlaw strikes. It’s the biggest attack on workers’ rights in postwar Britain, and reminiscent of the oppressive restrictions that exist in dictatorships and authoritarian regimes.”

The minimum service levels law was passed this year as the government faced a wave of disruptive public sector strikes across health, education and transport.

It will allow employers to issue a “work notice” before a strike, specifying which employees it deems necessary to maintaining a minimum level of operation, and what work they should be doing.

The new law is expected to start taking effect across three sectors – the ambulance service, the rail network and border security – from the middle of December, with regulations for the fire and rescue service, education and nuclear decommissioning set to be introduced soon.

Paul Nowak, the TUC general secretary, has said the law is “unworkable”.

Wrack said: “It hasn’t really sunk in how serious this is for some sectors of the trade union movement.”

He added: “The TUC summit could well mark the start of a campaign of non-compliance with this legislation, with workers striking in defiance of work notices. This could mean a wave of strikes next year, up to and during the next general election.”

Wrack said the law effectively meant workers in the public sector would be told to break their own strike. “What happens if people who voted to strike refuse to go to work? How far does a union go to police its own members?” he added.

The FBU leader said that because fire fighting and many other public services were the responsibility of devolved administrations, the law would apply differently across Britain.

Humza Yousaf, Scotland’s first minister, has publicly said he would not issue work notices under the new legislation, while the Labour party has pledged to repeal the law if it wins the next election.

Wrack said it was possible that 100% of firefighters might be issued with work notices after they had voted to strike. His union has 33,000 members and has been one of the most outspoken in its opposition to the new legislation.

“The FBU and other unions will not accept this attack on working people by this government led by multimillionaires and which ruthlessly serves the interests of the billionaires and bosses.”

Wrack said a campaign of non-cooperation backed by the TUC would represent the most significant act of defiance by unions since the 1970s, when legislation introduced by Ted Heath’s 1970-74 government was defeated through mass defiance of the law.

Since the 1970s, Conservative governments have passed a series of laws curbing the power of unions, and Wrack said there was some nervousness about defying the new legislation.

“Everyone is united opposing it, but some people are saying we have had our fingers burned before. There are concerns about funds being sequestered. I am not underestimating the importance of that.”

The government said minimum service levels would ensure that vital public services would continue in the face of strikes. Rishi Sunak has said the regulations would prevent unions from “derailing” Christmas for millions of people.

A Department for Business and Trade spokesperson said: “The purpose of this legislation is to protect the lives and livelihoods of the public and ensure they can continue to access vital public services.”

They added: “This bill does not remove the ability to strike, and we understand disruption is inherent to any industrial action, but people expect the government to act in circumstances where their rights and freedoms are being disproportionately impacted, and that’s what we are doing with this bill.”