What will it mean for teachers?
Having seen the New Year in with a fresh wave of strikes as civil servants joining transport workers, nurse, and ambulance staff and junior doctors are being polled about possible action, the government is pressing ahead with its Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill.
Will it actually happen?
Like it or not, it looks likely that the bill will go through. It passed its third reading unamended in January by 315 votes to 246, leaving only the House of Lords to give it further scrutiny – indeed there have been rumblings from the Labour front bench with Deputy Leader Angela Rayner on the attack, saying,
‘It’s from a Prime Minister who is desperately out of his depth, desperately blaming the working people of Britain for his own failures… There has been no opportunity for real scrutiny, no impact assessment. And there is absolutely no justification for it. The government pretence that it is about safety is offensive to every key worker.’
Is there any justification, then?
Depends on where you stand. Unsurprisingly, the government thinks so. Business Minister Kevin Hollinrake says it’s merely about the ‘…need to maintain a reasonable balance between the ability of workers to strike and the ability to keep the lives and livelihoods of the British public safe’. Safe to say that the striking health professionals who are already committed to abandoning the picket lines when real (Category 1) emergencies arise do not agree!
So what powers does it give the government?
TUC General Secretary Paul Nowak described the bill’s measures as ‘Draconian’ and has accused ministers of trying to keep MPs ‘in the dark’. Basically, If it finally becomes law it will amend the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 to allow the Business Secretary to set the minimum service levels required while strikes are under way in specified areas of the public sector – namely Health, Fire Rescue, Transport, Border Security, Nuclear decommissioning and, of course, Education. That means the employers will tell unions how many workers must be provided on strike days to ensure that the minimum service level is met. They then have to take ‘reasonable steps’ to make sure their members comply and could be sued if they fail (At the moment unions are immune from such tort proceedings, but under this Bill they will lose that protection).
But what does it mean for teachers?
For education professionals who work for a union, this presents a problem in that neither the Bill nor its explanatory notes provide any guidance as to what are ‘reasonable steps’ to ensure the required workers don’t go on strike and breach their ‘work notice’.
For teachers in general, the upshot seems to be that you no longer have the absolute right to strike. It’s not exactly written in stone that you’ll be dismissed if you refuse to comply with an order to work through your strike – but it’s a possibility. So, as long as your employer has given you notice in advance of the planned strike day that you will be required to work, you have little choice but to comply – because you’ll have no automatic protection from unfair dismissal if you don’t! That said, your school or college will still need to have a fair procedure for your dismissal for it to be legal.
Doesn’t this compromise our Human Rights?
Article 11 provides that ‘everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests’ – and the European Court of Human Rights has said that strike action is included in this. So the answer is very likely yes. According to Paul Nowak, ‘This legislation would mean that when workers democratically vote to strike, they can be forced to work and sacked if they don’t comply…. That’s undemocratic, unworkable, and almost certainly illegal’.
Of course, it’s possible that when the Bill finally gets proper scrutiny in the House of Lords it will be delayed or stopped – but if it passes we’re sure the unions will be eager to test it in the ECHR!
There’s more about this bill’s implications for the education sector here.