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ITF to back legal action against UK’s unworkable anti-strike bill

news 29 Jan 2023

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) will back union legal action against the UK Government’s proposed anti-strike legislation, the organisation announced today.

International transport unions have added their voice to growing condemnation of the UK Government’s ruthless attack on workers’ right to strike and called on all parties to reject the draconian anti-union legislation.

Paul Nowak, General Secretary of the UK Trades Union Congress (TUC), said the Minimum Service Level bill was “wrong, unworkable and almost certainly illegal” to force people to work who had voted for industrial action. He said unions would fight the bill every step of the way in parliament and in the courts.

The TUC is asking people to sign a petition demanding the prime minister changes his position and protects the right to strike.

“The UK Government has launched a full-scale attack on working people and trade unions,” said ITF President Paddy Crumlin. “It’s attempting to force the Minimum Service Level bill through Parliament. Its blind ambition is to give ministers sweeping new powers to restrict the right to strike.

“Instead of engaging with workers who sustain vital public services and negotiating in good faith to solve the legitimate disputes which have led to recent strike action, Rishi Sunak and his anti-union henchman Business Secretary Grant Shapps are intent on attacking workers fighting for a fair pay rise during the worst cost of living crisis in decades.”

Rail Minister Huw Merriman has admitted the Government is playing politics with people’s lives. He told parliament’s Transport Select Committee that strikes had a price tag for rail companies of up to £25m a day and said it would have cost the UK less to settle the dispute months ago. 

Human rights abused

Legal action is likely if the government persists with its questionable new bill given the very clear breaches of international labour and human rights law. The proposals are illegal because they infringe people’s fundamental right to strike. The ITF will support the UK TUC and affiliate unions in any legal action they pursue. 

ITF General Secretary Stephen Cotton said: “UK ministers, including Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, have repeatedly tried to justify the bill as having the support of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and as being similar to laws in other European countries. But those statements have recently been exposed as false.”

When asked about the bill by the BBC at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Gilbert Houngbo, the ILO's director general, said social dialogue between employers and employees was especially important during the current economic downturn. He went on to say he was "very worried about workers having to accept situations" where they would be faced with the threat of losing their jobs.

Meanwhile, experts agree that the UK proposals are much more severe than laws with similar names in other countries.

In a post on the Institute of Employment Rights website, Keith Ewing, Professor of Public Law at King’s College London, and Lord John Hendy KC, Chair of the Institute of Employment Rights, said “the choice of France as a comparator is a poor one” as the minimum service legislation there has “never been deployed for transport strikes”.

Dr Manuela Galetto, Associate Professor of Employment Relations and Co-Director of the Industrial Relations Research Unit at Warwick University, told Channel 4’s FactCheck that even when the procedures and notice time are not entirely followed in France, Italy and Spain, “the consequences on workers participating in a strike is never losing the job”. 

The legal position

Under ILO Convention 87 (which the UK has ratified) and the principles of freedom of association, the right to strike can only be restricted in extremely limited circumstances, according to Ruwan Subasinghe, the ITF’s Legal Director.

“In public services of fundamental importance, no government should have such broad powers to restrict the right to strike beyond ensuring people’s basic needs,Subasinghe said. “But under UK proposals, ministers alone would decide what constitutes a minimum service level — they would have absolute discretion resulting in scores of workers being forced under threat of legal penalties to abandon strike action. This is certainly in breach of the international law.”

The ILO Committee on Freedom of Association has consistently held that: "the imposition of minimum services must not result in strikes becoming ineffective in practice because of its limited impact, thereby creating the impression among workers that a strike has come to nothing because of overgenerous and unilaterally fixed minimum services.

“The UK Government is running around trying to look like it is doing something about the current spate of strikes,” said Stephen Cotton. “But all it is doing is making a bad situation worse and, in the process, crushing the UK’s reputation as one of the world’s great democracies. There’s no two ways about it, the right to strike is fundamental.” 

For more information, contact: ITF Press Office on +44 7770 728 229 or 

About the ITF: The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) is a democratic, affiliate-led federation of transport workers’ unions recognised as the world’s leading transport authority. We fight passionately to improve working lives; connecting trade unions and workers’ networks from 147 countries to secure rights, equality and justice for their members. We are the voice of the almost-20 million women and men who move the world