Affected by inflation and claiming cost of living, the UK experienced the biggest waves of strikes for generations, covering employees from Royal Mail, teachers, NHS staff, civil servants and rail workers. As soon as 2024 entered, the British Medical Association organised a walkout for pay restoration of its junior doctors. The right to strike is workers’ fundamental right. However, the conservative government forced the Strike (Minimum Service Level) Act (the Act) through parliament, requiring public sectors, such as health services, railway, education, fire and rescue, border security and nuclear decommissioning to maintain minimum service levels during industrial actions and in turn weaken workers’ right to strike. Supported by the Trade Union Congress (TUC), the South West Branch of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) Union will launch a march on Saturday (27 January) to defend workers’ right to strike.
Six sectors are required to maintain a minimum level of service during strikes
The Act, proposed by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak last January, passed speedily in the House of Commons. Followed by a string of amendments defeated in the House of Lords, the Act became law last July. Under the new legislation, workers from the six sectors identified with a work notice must comply during the industrial actions; otherwise, they will be sacked, meaning one in five workers in the UK – or 5.5 million workers – lose their right to strike. However, the right to strike is a fundamental labour right. Workers who are always in a disadvantageous position in an employment relationship rely on this fundamental labour right to protect their interests. In recent years, workers managed to fight for better terms through strikes. For example, the British Teachers’ Union, which represents more than 450,000 teachers, lecturers and school staff, were offered a 6.5% pay raise by the government after months of protests; the prolonged British rail strike resulted in an agreement between the railway company and the country’s largest transport union in November of last year.
The march kick-off at Cheltenham signifies the spirit of trade unionism
The march and rally for protecting the right to strike will kick off at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham on 27 January, where its staff fought for their labour rights four decades before. Forty years ago, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government attacked trade union rights at GCHQ, where union members were told to resign their membership or be sacked. And 14 refused to comply and were eventually fired. Marches regularly took place in Cheltenham – where many GCHQ staff are based – between 1984 and 1997. After a 13-year campaign marked by the fortitude of the workers and their families and the solidarity of the whole movement, they were reinstated when an incoming Labour government repealed the ban in 1997. This coming Saturday, representatives from major trade unions such as TUC and PCS Union will march with the sacked GCHQ staff through Cheltenham to commemorate their struggle and show trade unionists’ determination against the draconian law. The march will begin at 12 noon at Montpellier Gardens, Cheltenham, and depart through the town centre to Pittville Park for a rally.
The Labour promises to repeal the law within 100 days of office
As a federation of trade unions that collectively represent most unionised workers in the UK, the TUC will continue to resist the law. At a special Congress on 9 December, the TUC set out its future direction of the campaign against the government’s draconian law. They will call an urgent demonstration and provide support when a work notice is deployed, and a union or work is sanctioned under the new legislation. They will also continue wider legal challenges to the undemocratic laws in local and overseas courts. Furthermore, they will hold the Labour to their commitment to repeal the legislation within their first 100 days of office. While commitments from the Welsh and Scottish governments as well as city majors and council leaders for not implementing the law were secured, the TUC will continue to urge employers not to impose work notices.
The TUC also argues that the right to strike is protected by the Human Rights Act 1998, Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 87 and Article 6(4) of the European Social Charter. The government’s approach means the UK is now likely in breach of international law. The TUC had already reported the government to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) – the UN workers’ rights watchdog – over the Strikes Act, and ILO has raised its concerns about the laws.
March in defence of the right to strike
Date: 27 January 2024
Assembly point: Cheltenham
Time: 12 noon to 3:30 pm
Route: The march departs at the Montpellier Gardens through the city centre to Pittville Park for the rally