RMT general secretary Mick Lynch has warned that his union cannot fight a new Tory anti-strike law alone, as unions voted to defy minimum service levels.
On Monday, a motion adopting a stance of non-compliance with the government’s restrictive minimum service levels passed unanimously at the Trades Union Congress’ annual congress in Liverpool.
The new anti-strike bill, introduced by Grant Shapps in January, will set statutory minimum service levels on strike days across a range of public services, including health, fire and rescue, education, and transport.
The regulations would see unions forced to compel their members to work during an industrial dispute, with workers who refuse to comply risking dismissal and unions losing their immunity from prosecution.
The motion was proposed by NASUWT, seconded by the RMT, and received backing from the FBU, Unite, Unison, and the NEU.
Addressing the TUC congress hall, RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: “If we seek to comply, where are our disputes going to go? Meek compliance with this legislation is the road to oblivion for this movement.
“Nobody remembers those who comply with oppression. People remember the Tolpuddle Martyrs, people remember the Chartists, people remember 1926, and the miners’ strike. Not because they gave in, but because they fought back. That’s what we have to do.”
The Labour party has promised to repeal the minimum service levels legislation, along with all anti-trade union laws passed since 2015, within the first 100 days of government.
Matt Wrack, general secretary of the FBU, told gathered congress delegates that he “welcomed the pledge,” but that “we need to demand of Labour that there is no backsliding.”
As the government is still consulting over what reasonable steps a union must take in relation to minimum service levels, the strategies of non-compliance and non-cooperation unions will take in order to make the legislation unworkable is up for debate.
Under the current draft legislation, employers will issue a “work notice” prior to industrial action that identifies the workers it believes are necessary to maintain a minimum level of service. The union must then take “reasonable steps” to get the member to cross a picket line and work.
Strategies for non-compliance could include encouraging members required to work on strike days to phone in sick, calling longer and more disruptive strikes, or placing pressure on employers to not issue work notices in the first place.
In April, Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf pledged to the Scottish TUC congress that the Scottish government “will never issue or enforce a single work notice” under the legislation.
Unions argue that minimum service levels effectively outlaw strike action for members in certain sections of industry. Lynch said the legislation amounted to a “complete ban on the right to strike from certain grades of workers,” such as signallers and electrical control staff.
Mick Whelan, general secretary of Aslef, said at a TUC fringe event that these are obligations unions cannot comply with without “disrupting” the solidarity that the movement is built on.
“No trade union should ever be forced to tell anyone, if you’ve got a righteous, elected, and democratic dispute, that you cannot stand with each other.”
The motion commits the TUC’s general council – a body made up of unions and workers that meet regularly to oversee the TUC’s work – to legally challenge the legislation, mobilise support for any union and members who are sanctioned for non-compliance, build an appropriate industrial response to defend workers’ right to strike, and to organise a Special Congress to explore options for non-compliance and resistance.
While no date has yet been agreed for the special congress, Mick Lynch said it should be “called as quickly as we know the details” of the legislation.
Whenever it is called, the special congress is likely to prove lively, as there are tensions within the union movement over how to respond to the legislation.
Speaking at a fringe event on 10 September, Lynch raised concerns about rail unions being isolated. “RMT and Aslef cannot battle this on behalf of everyone else”, he said.
“Anyone in this movement who thinks this is just going to go away if we keep quiet has got another thing coming,” said Lynch. “Because the legislation they’ve put and the regulations they write in can be adopted right across this economy in every sector. If we don’t stop them and defeat them, they’ll push it further.”
When Grant Shapps unveiled his 16-point plan in the Daily Mail last August to “deal with the unions”, his proposals focused principally on the rail unions. Since then, the legislation has expanded to include other workers in key sectors.
Yet, with the general election only a year away, unions whose members are not directly in the firing line of the minimum service level legislation may be tempted to push instead for protests and legal challenges to the law, without committing to active defiance, with the hope that Labour will be elected and then repeal the legislation.
There’s also a fear that non-compliance could result in huge fines. Last July, the government introduced new legislation increasing the maximum fine a union could face from £250,000 to £1 million. Additionally, there’s concern that a union not complying could see a union have its funds sequestered, and ultimately be dissolved.
Angela Rayner, shadow deputy prime minister and strategic lead for Labour’s New Deal for Working People, told congress that the legislation was a “spiteful and bitter attack that threatens nurses with the sack” and that Labour “will update trade union laws to make them fit for the 21st century.”
The TUC announced on Sunday that they have reported the UK government to the United Nations workers’ rights standards body over the minimum service legislation. Taking the complaint to the International Labour Organisation, TUC general secretary Paul Nowak called the legislation “unworkable, undemocratic and almost certainly in breach of international law.”