Trade unions are preparing to fight back against a raft of measures aimed at curtailing workers’ ability to take industrial action and a wider assault on employment rights.
Leading figures in the trade union movement have accused Liz Truss of waging an “ideological attack” on workers and warned that the new Prime Minister is trying to “capitalise on an historic cost of living crisis to stamp out the trade union movement”.
Despite already operating under some of the most restrictive trade union laws in Europe, Truss’ proposals would make it harder for workers to organise by introducing higher ballot thresholds for action, taxing strike pay and implementing minimum service levels in certain sectors.
There have also been reports that the new Prime Minister is considering a review of rules around the 48-hour working week, breaks and mandatory holidays.
The proposals have been criticised as “out of touch and cruel,” with one Labour MP describing the potential changes as “highly authoritarian, undemocratic and dictatorial”.
Truss planning to up threshold for strike action is ‘undemocratic’
Both Conservative leadership candidates have been keen to lay out their anti-trade union credentials during the contest, which has taken place against a backdrop of heightened industrial action.
As workers in various sectors have voted for strike action over pay and working conditions, both Truss and Rishi Sunak have criticised trade unions and said they would introduce measures to curb their ability to take industrial action.
Truss has called for minimum service levels for ‘critical national infrastructure,’ which would mean an effective ban on strike action in a wide range of industries, including rail, energy, healthcare and education.
In response to the rail strikes called by the RMT, ASLEF and TSSA over a dispute relating to pay, job security and changes to conditions which unions say put passenger safety at risk, the government introduced new laws to allow firms to use agency workers to replace staff who go on strike.
These proposals were criticised not only by trade unions, but also agency worker bodies, with concerns raised about the practicality of finding suitably trained workers to replace full-time staff, and the knock-on effects on health and safety.
It is also thought that the two-week statutory notice period which unions are required to provide for strike action is not long enough for businesses to organise replacement workers.
Truss has now proposed extending the mandatory notice period for industrial action from two weeks to four weeks.
Further measures put forward by the new Prime Minister could also see the threshold for support for industrial action raised from 40% to 50% - meaning that workers can only take industrial action if at least 50% of all eligible workers vote for it, regardless of how many of those who do vote are in favour.
Unions have long criticised these thresholds as unfair, particularly given that no such minimum vote threshold exists for politicians such as Liz Truss, who did not acquire over 50% of all votes among eligible voters in her constituency.
In the Conservative leadership election, Truss received 47% of all the available votes.
Dave Ward, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) and a central figure in the Enough is Enough campaign, has said of Truss’ proposals that his union will overcome “whatever she decides to throw at us”.
The CWU has already launched two major campaigns of industrial action in recent months, at Royal Mail and BT, with disputes in both cases relating to below-inflation pay offers, which the union says are unfair, particularly when considering the large profits, dividends and CEO pay at both companies.
“It’s no surprise that someone like Liz Truss is trying to capitalise on an historic cost-of-living crisis to stamp out the trade union movement, which is the strongest safeguard against poverty in this country,” Ward told NationalWorld.
“Whatever she decides to throw at us, this union will overcome.”
Calls for a ‘new deal for workers’
The CWU has put forward proposals for a ‘new deal for workers’ campaign, which would see higher wages for working people, an extension of common bargaining rights across the trade union movement and a coordinated campaign against rising energy bills.
Speaking to NationalWorld USDAW general secretary Paddy Lillis echoed these calls, and criticised Truss’ proposals saying they show she has “no understanding of the very real issues that face working people”.
He said: “The Government must focus on resolving disputes through negotiation, not by launching yet another blatant attempt to undermine workers having a collective voice and a real say in their working lives. What we need is a new deal for workers to tackle low-pay and insecure work, along with a plan to tackle the cost of living crisis that includes action on rocketing energy prices.
“With an estimated 12 million households facing fuel poverty, the British public will be disgusted with a new Prime Minister that prioritises an ideological attack on trade union members over tackling the cost of living crisis that the Tories themselves have created.”
Unions have also hit out at suggestions that a tax could be introduced on strike pay, which some unions provide to workers from their reserves during industrial disputes.
As union reserves come primarily from membership fees, which are paid by workers from their wages which have already been taxed, this would effectively be a double-tax for striking workers.
Alex Marshall, president of the IWGB said that the proposals have come about as the Conservatives are “rattled” by the resurgence of trade unions in the last year.
He told NationalWorld the proposals “serve no purpose other than to stifle worker power at a time when it is needed more than ever”.
“The reermergence of the working class is the market response to a broken economy, 12 years of Tory incompetence whose only strategy has make the middle classes poor, and the poor poorer,” he said.
“Truss’s energy would be far better spent on regulating the gig economy and other notoriously low paid and broken sectors such as outsourcing, facilities management and cleaning.
“Regulating rogue employers would level-up society much more quickly than stifling the legitimate democratic actions of trade unions.”
Labour MP Andy McDonald has described the plans as a “Thatcher-style onslaught on our trade unions” and urged Truss to instead focus on tackling rising energy costs and increasing wages.
He said: "Having provoked and deliberately prolonged disputes with rail and postal workers, the Tory leadership contest frontrunner Liz Truss, appears intent on making it even more difficult for hard pressed and poverty stricken workers to defend themselves.
"Any attempt to further restrict trade union activity in this way, would be highly authoritarian, undemocratic and dictatorial.
Truss to review 48-hour working week
In addition to the measures put forward by Truss aimed at limiting the activities of trade unions, reports have emerged in recent days that the new prime minister is considering a review of the 48-hour working week and other EU-directives which provide minimum levels of holiday pay and break time for workers.
The Times reports that Truss could be set to reform the working time directive, which prevents bosses from discriminating against workers who do not wish to work more than 48-hours per week.
The review could also change the rules around holiday pay which currently mean that full-time workers get four paid weeks off per year plus bank holidays.
Though not yet confirmed, Truss has previously criticised the work ethic of workers in the UK, and is said to favour cutting regulation in a bid to drive up productivity - a strategy disputed by many economists.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady has urged Truss to “come clean about her plans”.
She said: “Liz Truss’ number one priority should be to help families pay their bills this winter. Threatening hard-won workers’ rights is the last thing the country and working people need.
“Holiday pay, equal pay for women and men, safe limits on working hours and parental leave are just a few of the rights underpinned by retained EU law. These are vital workplace protections and rights - not nice-to-haves.
“Rather than dealing with the cost of living emergency, ministers seem more interested in attacking workers’ terms and conditions.”