One thing you can rely on the Tories to be is anti-union. Earlier this year – as hot strike summer progressed, with everyone from journalists to Amazon workers taking industrial action – Liz Truss promised to usher in a new crackdown on strikes within 30 days of winning the Tory leadership election.
But nowhere has she said that she will actually ban strikes outright. Instead, she’s promised to increase the notice period unions must give before taking action, from 14 days to 28, allowing employers even more time to make counter-preparations. She also wants to increase the threshold needed to make a ‘yes’ vote lawful, and expand the scope of this second support threshold stipulation from certain public services to apply to any strike ballot, whether in the public or private sectors.
She also says she will make good on the longstanding Tory pledge from its 2019 general election manifesto and introduce minimum service provision requirements during strikes, especially in the transport sector but also for schools, communications and utilities. This would mean that not all union members could go on strike in order to ensure, for example, a high percentage of trains could still run in peak travelling times.
Truss has also pledged to introduce a mandatory ‘cooling-off’ period, meaning unions cannot strike at will after achieving a lawful ballot mandate, and to outlaw or restrict strike pay so that strikers bear the full cost of their loss of wages on their strike days.
Truss wants to make it even more difficult for unions to gain a lawful mandate for striking. On top of that, if and when they do gain a mandate, the action unions will be able to take promises to be so ineffective that it would cause virtually no disruption, which goes against the entire purpose of a strike. In short, Truss and the Tories are trying to completely neuter the unions so they’re left looking weak, rather than giving them a blanket ban they can rally against.
Strikes will become mere token protests. No one will consider losing a day’s wages to participate when they have no ability to place pressure upon an employer. It will be a case of all pain and no gain as the futility of striking becomes evident. This will be a practical and psychological blow to workers and the unions organising against the cost-of-living crisis.
Of course, Truss and the Tories have form here. Making strikes difficult and ineffective rather than banning them outright was the central thrust behind the Trade Union Act 2016 which the David Cameron-led Tory government enacted, and in which Truss served as a minister.
The 2016 Act’s key components were to introduce a turnout threshold for any lawful industrial action mandate – 50% of union members had to vote in order for the result to produce a mandate. The Act also imposed a second threshold in certain public services, like transport, where this 50% turnout had to also amount to 40% of all those entitled to vote. In other words, all those who do not vote are now counted as voting ‘no’.
On top of this, the Act doubled the period of notice a union must serve an employer before any industrial action is taken, and compelled unions to re-ballot every six months if they wished to continue striking.
The Act contributed further to an existing anti-union landscape. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Tories had already limited the scope of industrial action, with legislation like the Employment Act 1980. And as the sleeping dragon of the labour movement has begun to stir, so too has the current Tory government stepped up their promises to defang it. In July 2022, before Truss announced her latest pledge to crack down on strikes, Tory MPs repealed a longstanding ban on the use of agency workers to replace strikers during industrial action.
Now Truss has picked up the pace with gusto. Her proposals dramatically increase the hoops and hurdles through which union members must pass in order to be able to take industrial action. And, if those obstacles are navigated, the other parts of her proposals drastically reduce the effectiveness of any industrial action that is to be taken.
The Truss strategy is to be able to say to the general public and the international community that she is carefully balancing the fundamental human right to strike with the right of the public not to be inconvenienced by strikes.
In this, she is supported by other wings of the party, including current transport secretary Grant Shapps, who backed Rishi Sunak for the leadership. Writing recently in the Daily Mail about his 16-point plan to restrict strike action, Shapps said: “Margaret Thatcher knew Luddite trade unions were a barrier to […] reform. She delivered prosperity by taking them on – and so will we. […] We support the right to strike. But we must reset the balance.”
One of Shapps’ most pernicious new proposals is to make each single act of striking require its own ballot mandate. This would mean each single day of striking would require its own ballot, creating massive delays in organising any action.
Whether Truss makes good on her 30-day promise or not, her particular blend of egotism along with a desire to make her mark at any cost means she is a real and present danger to the union movement.
The only answer to Truss’s attack on industrial action is enshrining the right to strike in a basic or fundamental law, given that Britain has no written constitution. Campaigns by groups like Free Our Unions and the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom will need to become popular cause célèbres in order to pressure the Labour party into pushing for such a change. It will be a long and hard battle, but the hundreds of thousands of union members who joined the hot strike summer show this is the best opportunity in years to gain that kind of support.
Gregor Gall is a visiting professor of industrial relations at the University of Leeds.