Unions launch legal action against new ‘strike-breaking’ law

Ministers changed the law this summer to allow agency staff to cover striking workers

Ministers changed the law this summer to allow agency staff to cover striking workers

20 Sep 2022, 12:41

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Unions representing education workers will take legal action against the government over a new law allowing agency workers to cover for striking staff.

Ministers changed the law in July in response to threats of widespread industrial action over pay. It was previously illegal to draft agency staff in to cover striking workers.

Teaching union NASUWT said it will this week lodge a judicial review of the decision, while support staff union Unison has already lodged papers for its own legal challenge.

The University and College Union as well as the National Education Union, the country’s largest education union, are also participating in a joint legal challenge with other unions, coordinated by the Trades Union Congress. Other unions involved in the judicial review include the GMB and Unite, which represent school and college support staff.

Unison said if both its action and the TUC’s were given permission to proceed, it was “likely all the arguments will be heard together”.

Ministers say law will maintain ‘crucial public services’

unions NASUWT teachers vaccine pay
Dr Patrick Roach

The government said in July that the law change would allow organisations “most impacted by industrial action to fill vital roles with temporary, skilled workers”.

The reforms would “help ensure crucial public services and people’s daily lives remain uninterrupted by staff strikes”.

But unions have accused the government of bringing in measures to “effectively break strikes”, and said today the new law violates “fundamental trade union rights, including the right to strike”.

“These regulations seek to further undermine and weaken the rights of all workers, including teachers, to take legitimate industrial action,” said Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of NASUWT.

“The government is seeking to prevent workers taking collective action to defend their jobs, pay and working conditions in direct contravention of its international commitments and obligations. The right to strike is enshrined in international law.”

He said the change in the law would have a “profound impact on supply teachers”.

Unions urge ministers to help solve pay disputes

Unison general secretary Christina McAnea said ministers “should be rolling up their sleeves and helping solve disputes, not risking everyone’s safety by allowing the use of inexperienced agency workers”.

“Changing the law in such a hostile and unpleasant way makes it much harder for workers to stand up to dodgy employers. It also risks limiting the impact of any legal strike.”

It comes as the University and College Union prepares for “unprecedented” strike action against below-inflation pay offers in almost 30 colleges.

The new government also faces a potential triple whammy of industrial action this year from school teachers, support staff and even school leaders in response to ministers’ pay proposals.

The ASCL school leaders’ union is consulting its members on whether to ballot for industrial action for the first time in its 16-year history. The NAHT leaders’ union said it was not ruling “any action in or out”.

Teachers gear up for pay ballots

The National Education Union has promised the “largest teachers’ pay ballot in a generation” when it formally asks around 250,000 members in November if they want to go on strike. NASUWT has also consulted members on the pay proposals.

The GMB and Unison are consulting support staff members on whether to accept or reject their pay offer. Unite, which also represents some support staff, is balloting for strike action.

Announcing the law change earlier this year, the then business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said: “In light of militant trade union action threatening to bring vital public services to a standstill, we have moved at speed to repeal these burdensome,1970s – style restrictions.

“From today, businesses exposed to disruption caused by strike action will be able to tap into skilled, temporary workers to provide the services that allow honest, hardworking people to get on with their lives. That’s good news for our society and for our economy.”

The unions now need to wait to receive the permission of the High Court to proceed with their legal challenges.

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