Liz Truss Versus The Trade Unions: The Next Front In The Culture Wars?

The new prime minister has promised to crackdown on "militant" unions who are striking over stagnant pay and the cost of living crisis.
Liz Truss vowed to take a "tough line on trade union action that is not helping people get on in life".
Liz Truss vowed to take a "tough line on trade union action that is not helping people get on in life".
Illustration: Chris McGonigal/HuffPost; Photos: Getty Images

Much has been made of Liz Truss’s attempts to emulate her icon, Margaret Thatcher, in her quest to become Tory leader and prime minister.

While she has sought to distance herself from the comparison, there is one thing she does share with her late predecessor: she has taken over as prime minister at a time when Britain’s economy is crumbling and its workforce is more mutinous than ever.

Angered by an inflation rate of 9.9 per cent that is outstripping stagnant wages, trade unions are organising en masse for industrial action that threatens to take Britain back to the turmoil of the 1970s.

One by one, they are rejecting the government’s single-digit pay offers and organising strike ballots. Collectively, they have said “enough is enough”.

Their resistance sets the scene for a new front in the divisive culture wars in which unions fear Truss will attempt to “crush the enemy within” by bringing in a series of measures that will hamper their ability to take industrial action.

Kwasi Kwarteng, Truss’s new chancellor, confirmed this week the government will bring forward legislation making it harder to go on strike.

“What we have is a government that seems to be struggling to come up with answers to the cost of living crisis,” says Tim Sharp, senior policy officer for employment rights at the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

“It appears that some in government would like to distract from that with a culture war against the unions.

“We had a leadership contest in which the candidates had to appeal to some of their more ideological members and that’s why we’ve seen the pledges in terms of anti-union action.”

Which unions are striking?

The RMT and Aslef rail unions, the Communication Workers Union (CWU) representing Royal Mail workers and barristers under the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) have all been on strike over pay and working conditions in recent weeks.

Dockhands represented by Unite have also been striking at the port of Felixstowe and are set to do so again in September, in the shadow of the Labour Party conference in Liverpool.

The National Education Union (NEU), the largest education union in the UK that represents teachers, lecturers and support staff, will open its online preliminary ballot for strike on September 24, before a formal ballot takes place in November.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch has said Britain could be brought to a standstill by a wave of strikes hitting “every sector of the economy”.
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch has said Britain could be brought to a standstill by a wave of strikes hitting “every sector of the economy”.
Ian Forsyth via Getty Images

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN), whose members include half a million nurses, midwives, nursing support workers and students, opened a postal ballot for strike action on October 6 that will close on November 2.

If enough members vote for industrial action, it will be the first time in the union’s history that its members in England and Wales go on strike.

The British Medical Association (BMA) has also said it will ballot junior doctor members in England for industrial action if the government fails to restore pay to 2008/09 levels by the end of this month.

The public needs to be prepared for the havoc such strikes could wreak on their daily lives.

“Every school in the country is going to be shut bringing total chaos,” one union source says. “Tens of thousands of hospital appointments are going to be cancelled.

“This is the price you pay for a Tory government that has slashed public services.”

The tools in Truss’s arsenal

If Truss is looking at how she might limit trade union rights, David Cameron’s Trade Union Act of 2016 might provide some inspiration.

Billed at the time as some of the most “regressive” anti-union legislation in the world, the law brought in measures such as higher thresholds for success in industrial ballots.

It also increased the notice period unions must give to employers ahead of any strike action from one week to two weeks.

In an ordinary union, there must be a 50 per cent turnout for an industrial ballot in order for their results to be legally valid. A simple majority has to vote in favour of strike action for it to go ahead.

But for workers who deliver “important” public services, not only does the 50 per cent turnout have to be met, the support of 40 per cent of all eligible members must also be attained for the strike action to be legal.

Unions fear that Truss could use a new law to bring in thresholds that are so high that they could make strikes nigh on impossible.

They anticipate that she could also widen the definition of what counts as a public service to include bus drivers and tube drivers, for example, to apply the 40 per cent threshold.

“If she goes in this direction there will be new laws — that’s a fact,” says one union source.

“She’s got a parliamentary majority. You’re not going to stop her legislating.

“If the Tories use an act of parliament to redefine what defines a public service, at a stroke they would cover huge sections of private industry.

“They can make it even more difficult for unions to get through the thresholds. These laws are already the most stringent of anywhere in Europe.”

A new law to guarantee a minimum level of service on “vital national infrastructure” was a key pledge to come out of the leadership campaign, as was a tax on the strike benefit members receive when they don’t go into work.

Truss also suggested brining in a cooling-off period so that unions can no longer strike as many times as they like in the six-month period after a ballot.

Tim Sharp says the effect of Truss’s plans could be that they make union disputes harder to resolve.

“The industrial action we’ve had has been grassroots driven,” he tells HuffPost UK.

“They risk making industrial disputes harder to resolve. You often see a day of strikes here and there, but if a union is being limited in how often it can take industrial action, then what you could see is longer periods of strike action.”

Another union insider agrees: “If Truss thinks she’s going to shut down the unions she’s got another thing coming.

“She will just create so much anger it increases turnout in the many union ballots currently going on.”

Workers of the world unite

Criminal barristers are on strike over pay for legal aid work.
Criminal barristers are on strike over pay for legal aid work.
Mike Kemp via Getty Images

In the unions, Truss has found herself an opponent that will not go down without a fight.

Sharon Graham, the boss of the Unite union, tells HuffPost UK there will be a “prolonged and fierce resistance to Truss attacking workers’ rights”.

“If Liz Truss thinks we have just been sitting waiting for her anti-trade union laws, she’s wrong,” she says.

“We’re ready. If she puts up the thresholds for legal strike action we’ll employ more organisers to get the vote out. If she taxes strike pay, we’ll take more money from the strike fund to hold the real value of strike pay.

“And if she tries to gag trade unions we’ll find ways to speak out more and more.”

And in a swipe at Truss’s own result in the Tory leadership contest Graham says: “Right now if workers plan strike action 50 per of those who can vote in the strike ballot must vote for the strike to be legal.

“It’s a bit rich for Liz Truss to be upping the figures in new laws. In her election for leader she only got 47 per cent of Tory members who were entitled to vote.

“If the Tory Party was bound by the same restraints as the unions Truss would not have made the grade for leader. You could not make it up.”

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said workers could be forced to take “unlawful industrial action” if the government makes it impossible for legal strikes to take place.

He told Sky News: “We’re fast getting to a situation where we’re going to have laws that are as oppressive as those that exist in Russia and China and back in Poland before Solidarnosc came along and took unlawful industrial action to break free of the oppression of the old Soviet bloc an the communist regime.”

The TUC is already preparing its campaign to appeal to the public when the battle begins.

National rallies will take place in Westminster and there will be a tour of town halls, a national day of action and a lobby of parliament.

The message members have been told to stick to is that Truss plans’ “threaten the right to strike” and are an attempt to distract the public from the burgeoning cost of living crisis.

And crucially, there is the edict to “stay calm: they want us to blow our tops, don’t give them the satisfaction”.

Failing that, the government could find itself in court.

In a sign of the resistance to come, 11 trade unions launched legal action against the government on Tuesday over government plans to replace striking workers with agency staff.

They claim the government has broken the Employment Agencies Act 1973 by failing to consult them on the changes and is violating “fundamental trade union rights” protected by Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

No pain, no gain

For Truss, a protracted battle with the unions could help her forge her reputation with voters, for whom she remains largely unknown.

According to pollster James Johnson, the co- founder of JL Partners, Truss could win plaudits from the public from sticking to what she thinks is right.

“I don’t think it’s a politically calculated move, I think it comes from a genuine frustration within government,” he says.

“What pays off for Liz Truss is that if they are pursuing what they think is right, even if it doesn’t go down well, that may have a long term effect in popularity in showing that there is a steeliness and sense of inner conviction — and that is what the public do crave.”

By taking such a firm line, she also sets a contrast in voters’ minds between herself and Labour leader Keir Starmer, whom the public still perceive as weak on strikes.

“There are negative views about Starmer because of his position on strike — at first he seemed to back people going out, then he didn’t,” Johnson explains.

“It reinforces that view that he doesn’t stand for anything, and that is fine if the other leading party is seen like that — but if we get that contrast developing between Truss and Starmer, then he could be in trouble.”

The jury is out on whether Truss can recapture the status of a conviction politician — or whether the turmoil that ensues is so great that it would cancel any benefit that came from taking a stand.


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