Sheffield Council backs the right to strike and opposes new trade union law
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A motion was successfully brought to the meeting of Sheffield City Council on Wednesday (December 6) by independent Coun Sophie Wilson.
She said: “I believe in the right to strike, the right to take industrial action against an employer without fear of retaliation and victimisation. Without this right, we are not free.”
The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 allows the government to bring in regulations allowing public services employers to apply for a work notice. That would exempt some workers in sectors including health, fire and rescue, education and transport from strike action in order to provide a minimum level of service.
Unions would be expected to take “reasonable steps” to ensure that members comply with a work notice.
Sheffield Green Party Baroness Natalie Bennett of Manor Castle sought to block the regulations in the House of Lords on Wednesday night with a ‘fatal motion’. She spoke but withdrew the motion after she failed to win support from the LibDems or Labour in the Lords.
Coun Wilson pointed to the Joint Committee on Human Rights which expressed “concern that this legislation is not compatible with the UK’s commitments to human rights for workers and trade union members”.
She added: “It’s disgraceful that in such a short space of time, this government has gone from ‘clapping to sacking our frontline workers’ as Keir Starmer said, actually.
“This government knows we are stronger together. The underlying theme here isn’t improving services, it’s breaking us apart.”
She said: “We need to stand together to do everything we possibly can to oppose this, to ensure Sheffield Council is not complicit in this attack on our rights and ensure that Sheffield workers are free to take industrial action as and when they need to.”
Her motion asks the strategy and resources policy committee to look at how to use provisions in the act, including the discretion not to issue work notices, to protect the rights of council workers to strike. This should be reflected in council policies, such as the ethical procurement policy.
It also calls for concerns to be raised with all relevant bodies, including the fire and rescue authority and health boards, and for the council to work with local unions and Sheffield Trades Council “to oppose this legislation together as effectively as possible”.
The motion also called for the council to write to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and demand he pledges an incoming Labour government would reverse fines and other measures taken against any union under the act.
Coun Peter Price put forward a Labour amendment, seconded by Coun Mike Chaplin, noting that “an incoming Labour government would repeal the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act and that Labour has been vocal in their opposition to this piece of legislation”.
The amendment resolved to work with unions and all relevant bodies to avoid work notices being issued.
It also said that an incoming Labour government would implement a New Deal for Working People, strengthening rights and protections for workers.
He said: “This government has had a go at asylum seekers, it has had a go at people living on the street, telling us that it’s their lifestyle, they have reduced benefits and now they are having a go at trade unions. It is the old chestnut, trying to remove the power of trade unions.
“Even Thatcher agreed that if a ballot is carried out and unanimously supported, then it would be allowed.”
Couns Joe Otten and Sophie Thornton put forward a LibDem amendment, stating that “this government is engaging in a divisive blame game over the state of public services against a movement dominated by political opponents”.
It said LibDem policies pledge to broaden legal rights on collective bargaining. The amendment sought to “remind Sir Keir of his leadership election pledge(since deleted) to “repeal the Trade Union Act” and “oppose Tory attacks on the right to take industrial action and the weakening of workplace rights”.
Coun Thornton said that she is a proud care worker and trade union member. She said the government is “treating people who are standing up for what they believe and better pay and conditions with complete and utter contempt and it is completely unacceptable”.
A Green Party amendment was put forward by Couns Martin Phipps and Coun Paul Turpin. It said the act “exposes trade unions to being liable to pay damages of up to £1 million, and forces trade unions to act as enforcement agents on behalf of employers and the government”.
It urged backing for Baroness Bennett’s action, adding: “If Keir Starmer’s Labour refuse to back the Green fatal motion it will further demonstrate his betrayal of British workers, his contempt for democracy and basic democratic rights and further expose his duplicity when campaigning to be the leader of the Labour Party.”
The Greens called for all “anti-union and anti-strike laws introduced since 1979 should be repealed, including bans on secondary picketing, and bans on industrial action for political objectives including climate and ecological justice”. The amendment said that a charter for positive trade union rights should be introduced instead.
Coun Toby Mallinson, who is active in the NEU teachers’ union, said: “The government wants to be tough on strikes but not on the causes of strikes.”
He said that the Labour Party had only tabled a motion of ‘regret’ in the House of Lords, “an incredible and shocking position for the so-called party of organised Labour”.
The Labour amendment was lost, except for the paragraph about working to avoid the issuing of work notices. The LibDem amendment was also partially defeated.
The Green amendment was passed, except for the reference to the House of Lords’ action and the accusation that Sir Keir Starmer would be guilty of a betrayal of British workers by failing to back it.