‘Putting politics above public services’

Janey Starling explains yet another government attack on the right to strike: minimum service levels

Ambulance picket line

The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act, passed in July 2023, is the government’s latest attempt to weaken trade union muscle. It gives employers in ambulance, fire and rescue and border services new powers to force people to work on strike days.  

Under the act, employers can issue a ‘work notice’ to a union branch planning strike action, which would specify people who are required to work on a strike day. Work notices interfere with workers’ rights to take industrial action yet, under the new law, unions can be financially liable if they fail to issue compliance notices or meet unworkable demands.  

UNISON has been working with the TUC and other unions to oppose the Strikes Act and ensure no employer issues a work notice. 

As general secretary Christina McAnea has stated: “Work notices not only impinge on our right to strike, they poison industrial relations within the workplace.”  

UNISON reps within the ambulance service have historically used voluntary local agreements with employers to ensure that emergency services can still run on strike days.  

A UNISON member working in an ambulance service control room underlined this in a formal response to the government, explaining how during the most recent industrial action in the ambulance service, in January 2023, no 999 calls were left unanswered.  

“Safe levels of cover were agreed during the derogation talks and emergency tactics agreed as necessary” he said. “Strike days are better managed than most non-strike days where demand is more of a risk to patients waiting. The government does not seem to worry about our everyday situation.” 

Helga Pile, UNISON head of health, agreed. “The government has imposed these extra powers despite the fact that our employers were very clear they did not want or support them,” she said. “This is a case of putting politics above public services. Whose expertise would you trust to assess patient safety issues on an ambulance strike day: Rishi Sunak or paramedics?”  

The government appears set on expanding this unworkable policy into other sectors, including hospital services and education. UNISON has pushed back at the Westminster level and England’s largest academy trust has already vowed not to issue work orders to striking staff if the “inflammatory” and “self-defeating” new laws are implemented. 

“The right to strike is a fundamental democratic right and is an essential last resort for workers to win decent pay and workplace fairness,” said Ms McAnea. “Until we ensure the repeal of anti-worker laws under an incoming Labour government, UNISON is committed to boosting ballot turnouts, beating thresholds and driving strong participation in order to win disputes” 

UNISON bargaining guide on minimum service levels 

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