Unions have reacted angrily to Rishi Sunak’s new anti-strike legislation which aims to enforce “minimum service levels” in public sectors, such as the NHS and schools, as the prime minister struggles to control labour disputes.

The government intends to introduce the law in the upcoming weeks.

This rule will give employers in health, education, fire, ambulance, train, and nuclear commissioning the ability to terminate staff members and file lawsuits against unions if minimal standards are not reached.

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Thoughts of potential legal action led government insiders to claim that preparations in the original bill, created by the former business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, for stiffer thresholds for industrial action to take place, would be scrapped.

In the lead-up to the next general election, Keir Starmer stated that if Labour were to form the next government, he would repeal the anti-trade union legislation, drawing a distinct line with the Conservatives on workers’ rights.

Sharon Graham, the general secretary of the Unite union, said: “Yet again, Rishi Sunak abdicates his responsibility as a leader.

“Whatever the latest scheme the government comes up with to attack us, unions will continue to defend workers.”

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In order to allay concerns that the disruption of blue-light services puts lives in danger, the government will consult on the appropriate degree of coverage for the fire, ambulance, and rail services before establishing minimum service levels.

The other three public services—health, education, and nuclear—will also be given power to impose minimum service levels, though ministers anticipate reaching consensual agreements in these fields and say they would only enact the anti-strike law if this were not possible.

Government officials stated union members who refused to comply with employer requests to work fewer hours than the minimum required could lose their employment.

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The government has acknowledged that implementing minimum service levels to prevent strikes may not work.

The transport department warned the decision would encourage unions to go on strike more regularly in an effort to pressure businesses in an impact study that was issued last year.

The same document also issued a warning that it might encourage workers to engage in more non-strike industrial action, such as refusing to work overtime, which could still have a devastating effect on some sectors of the economy.

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In the case of healthcare, the proposals, according to the ministers, are not meant to undermine the unions but rather to ensure the safety of the public.

Following the recent strikes, nurses reached their own national consensus over delivering a basic level of care.

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The business secretary, Grant Shapps said: “As well as protecting the freedom to strike, the government must also protect life and livelihoods.

“While we hope that voluntary agreements can continue to be made in most cases, introducing minimum safety levels – the minimum levels of service we expect to be provided – will restore the balance between those seeking to strike and protecting the public from disproportionate disruption.”

The country is still facing further strikes this winter, which the new law would come in too late to prevent.

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Ministers are also advising unions to cease planned industrial action, saying that if they comply, wage increases may be discussed for the following year.

Ministers invited union leaders to hold talks on next year’s pay review in an attempt to resolve current disputes “constructively through dialogue”.

Sunak has previously ruled out pay demands for this year despite millions of workers struggling with the cost of living.

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After a new year speech in east London, Starmer said: “I don’t think this legislation is going to work. I’m pretty sure they’d had an assessment that tells them that it is likely to make a bad situation worse.

The legislation will permit bosses of key public services to sue unions and sack employees who refuse to work

Ministers claim the plans are about ensuring public safety, in the case of the health service, rather than attacking the unions.

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However, nurses came to their own national agreement about providing a minimum level of service during recent strikes.

The ambulance service did not, meaning some patients suffering a heart attack or a stroke did not know there was help on the way.

Mr Shapps said: “While we hope that voluntary agreements can continue to be made in most cases, introducing minimum safety levels – the minimum levels of service we expect to be provided – will restore the balance between those seeking to strike and protecting the public from disproportionate disruption.”

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With the country still facing further strikes this winter, which the new law would come in too late to prevent, ministers are also urging unions to cancel planned industrial action, suggesting that if they do so then pay rises could be on the table next year.

Ministers invited union leaders to hold talks on next year’s pay review in an attempt to resolve current disputes “constructively through dialogue”.

Sunak has already ruled out pay demands for this year despite millions of workers struggling with the cost of living.

Source: The Guardian

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