BERLIN – Is the solution to the UK’s “winter of discontent” to ban some workers from striking? That’s the conclusion that Rishi Sunak’s government seems to have reached. Today (10 January), it unveiled so-called anti-strike laws designed to force workers in eight public sectors to offer “minimum service levels” during walkouts. These sectors, including rail, health and firefighting, would be required to maintain a certain level of service through any industrial action, under threat of sanctions.
In justifying the laws, the government pointed out that some other European countries have similar laws ensuring minimum service levels are maintained during strikes. And it is true that western European countries, including France, Spain and Italy, require some essential public services such as education and transport to keep a certain level of activity.
Those countries’ domestic laws try to balance maintaining essential public services with workers’ right to take away their labour. The right to strike is enshrined in international treaties, such as the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 87, which 155 countries, including the UK, are subject to. That means workers in most sectors cannot be forced to work (although some professions, such as the military and police officers, are usually banned from striking).
But in practice, I was told by Nicola Countouris, the director of the research department at the European Trade Union Institute, minimum service levels in sectors such as transport and education in EU countries are less a result of the law and most often due to mutual agreements between employers and unions. For instance, employers in countries such as Italy “defer to [trade unions]” in deciding minimum service levels on transport networks, Countouris said.
In France, minimum service levels on the Parisian transport network are the result of voluntary agreements rather than legislation. In some cases, such as when relations have severely broken down, regional prefects can order workers to return to work for the “continuity of public services”; that was the case during strikes at petrol refineries in October 2022. This is only rarely used, however: the last time workers were ordered to work by the French government before then was in 2010.
“We shouldn’t simply say because Belgium has minimum service requirements then surely we can do the same in the UK,” Countouris added. “Belgium has had this for decades, with the agreement of social partners.”
The proposed British legislation is more punitive than most western European versions. Sunak’s government has said that the law will be enforceable in two ways: allowing employers to fire workers who strike, and to sue unions if they do not ensure minimum service levels.
Another bill under consideration in parliament would impose minimum service levels in the transport sector, and seeks to put further obligations on unions. They would have to provide “work notices” identifying employees required to work during the strike to employers. The legislation would demand unions “take reasonable steps to ensure that the persons identified in the [work] notice do not take part, or continue to take part, in the strike”.
Countouris was scathing about this provision. “This is unenforceable, and especially the part of the legislation that requires trade unions to cooperate,” he said. The measures could require unions to work with the state to enable sanctions against their own members. But it is not clear how this provision would apply to non-unionised workers, who would also presumably be required to work in order to maintain minimum levels of service, Countouris added.
What’s more, the firing of highly skilled employees in essential public services is a counterproductive sanction as it would exacerbate existing problems, such as the shortage of qualified workers; it’s unlikely to be used much in practice. Mass redundancies are not in the interest of employers, the public or workers, which is why, Countouris said, the enforcement of minimum service laws in Europe is often minimal and more focused on quickly resolving disputes than punitive measures such as firing of workers or suing unions.
“Nobody wants to fire an entire workforce,” said Countouris. “Employers don’t want to fire them – they want them to go back to their classrooms, to their trains, once the dispute is resolved.”
[See also: Which striking workers have public support?]