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Unions united against law

20 December 2023

Banners at the 18 June 2022 TUC London demonstration under the banner “We demand better”. Photo Workers.

The first special Congress of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) for over forty years took place in early December. It considered how trade unions should respond to legal attempts to restrict their activity.

The Strikes (Minimum Services) Act passed into law in July and regulations came into force on 8 December covering rail, border security and ambulance services. Proposals for children’s education are being prepared.

The new law identifies additional sectors: fire and rescue services, nuclear installations and waste plants, and border security, as well as education and transport sectors more widely. The TUC estimates that 5.5 million workers would be affected, one in five of the workforce.

The inspiration for minimum service levels comes from Europe, where such restrictions are common, according to a briefing paper drawn up by the House of Commons Library, particularly France, Italy and Spain.

Ballot results ignored

Even if workers vote for strike action, meeting all the strict ballot criteria, the employer can issue a notice identifying workers who must attend work, to maintain an arbitrary level of service. The ballot result is ignored and the trade union involved can be required to tell their members to cross picket lines and attend work.

‘The Congress was remarkable for its unity’

The Congress was remarkable for its unity: representatives of nearly every affiliated union spoke in the debate: all supported proposals from the General Council. There were no amendments proposed.

Speakers pointed out that employers daily flout safe staffing levels in health and transport. A Unison ambulance service convenor described emergency cover arrangements they had operated during their strikes. Union reps in control rooms made sure ambulances were deployed to anyone who needed them, with the result that there were no patient incidents on strike days. 


Congress agreed to call a rally for 12 noon on Saturday 27 January 2024 in Cheltenham, home of GCHQ, where in 1984 Margaret Thatcher banned workers from even belonging to a union.

And the TUC will call demonstrations and mobilise support in the event a work notice is deployed, and to name and shame any employer who uses a work notice. 

Recently workers across many sectors – rail, NHS, schools, universities and in industry – have overcome stringent ballot requirements. Imposed by earlier laws, these were explicitly designed to make it harder for trade unionists to take action. 

In Place of Strife

Those laws failed to stop industrial action. The new act joins the list of anti-working class legislation going back to the Industrial Relations Act of the 1970s and Labour’s In Place of Strife of the late 1960s. 

This law will not be defeated by pleas to a putative future Labour government, by expensive and doubtful legal challenges, or by appealing to the EU or the ILO. Organisation in the workplace is key, the same way that earlier laws were made ineffective. 

• An edited version of this article appears in Workers January/February 2024 edition.