The government’s attempt to make it harder for public sector workers, including civil servants in the Border Force, to go on strike is "reprehensible, provocative and vindictive", civil service union PCS has said.
Business secretary Grant Shapps outlined new proposed laws on Tuesday which would give the government powers to ensure some public servants must continue to work during strike action.
The bill would allow employers in “critical public sectors” to maintain minimum levels of service during strikes, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said. If unions failed to comply with the obligations, they would lose legal protection from damages.
Mark Serwotka, PCS’s general secretary, said: "We shall oppose this hostile legislation to protect our members’ rights.
"It’s reprehensible, provocative and vindictive, and we’ll fight the legislation every step of the way.”
Serwotka said the bill "puts power in the hands of the wrong people".
“It gives all the power to ministers and employers instead of our members who are being denied their democratic right to strike," he said.
“It paves the way for workers who have voted for strike action being sacked if they refuse to turn up for work on a strike day. "
Border Force staff who are represented by PCS walked out over the festive period, holding strikes at London Heathrow, London Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff and Glasgow airports, as well as the Port of Newhaven, on 23-26 and 28-31 December. The government responded by drafting around 600 army personnel in to provide emergency cover.
BEIS said the legislation would “ensure that striking workers don’t put the public’s lives at risk and prevent people getting to work, accessing healthcare, and safely going about their daily lives”.
“The first job of any government is to keep the public safe," business secretary Grant Shapps said:
“Because whilst we absolutely believe in the ability to strike, we are duty-bound to protect the lives and livelihoods of the British people.
“I am introducing a bill that will give government the power to ensure that vital public services will have to maintain a basic function, by delivering minimum safety levels ensuring that lives and livelihoods are not lost.
“We do not want to have to use this legislation unless we have to, but we must ensure the safety of the British public.”
The government said similar legislation has been introduced by many countries across the world, including Italy and Spain, but PCS said the UK already has some of the toughest strike regulations in Europe.
BEIS has not specified what levels of service would be required.
The department said it would first hold consultations on minimum service levels for fire, ambulance, and rail services, “recognising the severe disruption that the public faces when these services are impacted by strikes, especially the immediate risk to public safety when blue-light services are disrupted”.
BEIS said it does not initially plan to introduce the powers for the other sectors included in the bill – border security, education, other health and transport services and nuclear decommissioning – as it expects them to reach a “sensible and voluntary agreement” on minimum service levels.
However, the bill will give the government the power to step in and set minimum service levels if it deems it necessary.
The government said it hopes to pass the legislation by the end of this year.
Sunak’s government has intensified efforts to water down strikes after a wave of industrial action across the publis sector last year as wages stagnated and inflation soared. In December, PCS, the civil service’s biggest union, joined nurses, rail workers, Royal Mail staff and others in taking action.
Fellow civil service unions Prospect and the FDA are also considering strike action. The FDA has begun a begun a formal ballot of fast streamers, while Prospect members backed action in an indicative vote held last year and said it would begin a formal ballot soon if its demands are not met.
Cabinet Office minister Jeremy Quin has invited civil service unions for talks to resolve the disputes. The unions have urged ministers to move out of “listening mode” and put meaningful offers on the table to resolve pay disputes.