'For The Birds': Labour And Unions Condemn Sunak Plan To Sack Striking Workers

The prime minister's proposals to end the current wave of industrial action could be challenged in court.
Rishi Sunak's plans to ensure minimum service levels have been branded "unworkable".
Rishi Sunak's plans to ensure minimum service levels have been branded "unworkable".
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The government is reportedly considering legislation that would ensure so-called minimum service levels in six sectors—including the health service, rail, education, fire and border security — in a desperate bid to thwart the strikes crippling the country.

Under the new laws, which could be introduced as early as Thursday, strikes would be deemed illegal if trade unions refused to provide a minimum level of service, the Times reported.

Employers will be able to sue unions and sack workers under the government plans.

But Mick Whelan, the general secretary of the Aslef rail union, said similar measures in Europe had been deemed “unworkable” while Labour shadow’s chancellor, Rachel Reeves, said they were “for the birds”.

She told the BBC’s Radio 4’s Today programme that Labour would not support the bill, adding: “The NHS relies on the goodwill of doctors and nurses and other people who work in our health service.

“If you say that people can’t take industrial action, to say that we’re going from clapping our nurses to sacking them for taking industrial action — which is what the government is now threatening — the idea that that’s going to produce outcomes and reduce delays for patients, that’s just for the birds.

“And that’s why Labour would oppose it if the government go down that route.”

Asked whether the unions could take legal action if the policy is introduced, Whelan said they had already done so over proposals floated last year to replace striking workers with agency staff.

“The idea that in companies that don’t fully employ enough people, that people could be forced to come to work when they... should be on strike will be difficult to see how it can be done,” he told Sky News.

“But we’ll look at the detail of those laws. If we have to comply with them. If we have to comply with them we will.

“It’s more likely to lead to longer strife and a different form of action, because there will be a knock-on effect by anything that happens.

“We’re currently with 11 other trade unions taking legal action against the last set of laws they put in place and we would look at doing that in future as well.”

Members of Aslef at 15 rail companies are walking out today in a long-running dispute over pay, meaning rail passengers are facing their third consecutive day of travel disruption this week.

The Rail Delivery Group, the body that represents train companies, said only 20% of normal services will run on Thursday.

Among the operators which will run no trains all day on Thursday are Avanti West Coast, CrossCountry, East Midlands Railway, Northern, Southern, Southeastern, Thameslink and TransPennine Express.

It follows a 48-hour strike by members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) which led to widespread disruption across the country on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Whelan dismissed reports that the government could strike a deal with Aslef in order to “isolate” the RMT, saying they were “nonsense”.

“We won’t do that,” he said. “I mean, we have our strike, and we’re doing what we’re doing.

“I’ve got great praise for my comrades and colleagues in the RMT who are fighting an existential battle.”

In his first major speech of 2023 on Wednesday, Sunak said the government’s door was “always open” for talks.

“My view is people should always behave reasonably and fairly and make sure that what we’re doing is centred around what is responsible for the country, what’s affordable for the country,” the prime minister said.

He said that while people “should have the right to strike”, it “has to be balanced with the right of the British public to go about their lives without suffering completely undue disruption in the way we’ve seen recently”.

He added: “And that’s why I have said we will introduce new legislation that restores that balance and crucially protects people’s lives as well as their livelihoods.”


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