Rishi Sunak is trying to copy Margaret Thatcher with new anti-union laws but times have changed – Ian Swanson
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Rishi Sunak may not have ridden in a tank or donned pussy-bow blouses to copy Margaret Thatcher, as his erstwhile rival Liz Truss did, but he proudly describes himself as a Thatcherite and now seems determined to steal the Iron Lady's anti-union clothing as he threatens new laws to obstruct future strikes.
He plans to pass legislation to enforce "minimum service levels" in key public sectors, including the NHS, schools and railways, and give bosses in these and other services the right to sue unions and sack employees if the minimum levels are not met. The measures have not yet been put to parliament so would clearly not be in time to make any difference to the current wave of industrial action which began at the end of last year. Rather, the Prime Minister and his colleagues want to be seen as taking a tough stance against unions whom they have accused of "holding the country to ransom".
That was a favourite cry in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher was at her height. But times have changed. Unions can no longer be portrayed as over-powerful, their membership has declined and the Thatcher anti-union laws severely restricted their scope for action. Those currently involved in strikes cannot be painted as militants ready to down tools at the drop of a hat. Their walk-outs are a last resort. The Royal College of Nursing has never held a national strike before. The last national teachers' strike in Scotland was 40 years ago.
There is some speculation that the threatened new laws are mere grandstanding and may never see the light of day. They could certainly face legal challenge. But if they were to make it to the statute book, there are also warnings they could prove counter-productive. An impact assessment published by the government’s own transport department apparently warned setting minimum service levels that had to be maintained during strike action could result in unions into staging more frequent strikes as a way to put pressure on employers. And it also suggested there could be an increase in other forms of industrial action, such as refusing to work overtime, which could cripple certain industries.
Despite the concerns about the impact of staff like nurses and ambulance crews walking out, there are serious questions about the need to lay down minimum service levels. Unions organising strikes, especially in vital services like hospitals or social care, already normally ensure “life and limb” cover to protect the most vulnerable service users. And its is scarcely credible for the government to accuse unions of leaving hospital wards with inadequate staffing or dangerous delays in ambulance response times on strike days when these things are now the norm every day of the week anyway – and part of the reason for the discontent of these groups of workers.
As one union leader put it: "The public and health staff would welcome minimum staffing levels in the NHS every day of the week. That way, people wouldn't be lying in agony on A&E floors or dying in the backs of ambulances.”
The UK’s current situation is too serious for the kind of political posturing the Prime Minister is indulging in. He should abandon new anti-union laws and concentrate on trying to resolve the numerous ongoing disputes through serious negotiations.