Anti-strike law: what “defiance” means

By a Free Our Unions supporter

This article is a contribution to debate and discussion. To write a reply, please email

Fire Brigades Union leader Matt Wrack has called for a “mass movement of non-compliance” against the Minimum Service Legislation.

That’s good. But as I understand the legislation, “non-compliance” begs the question.

A union can refuse to enter into consultation about “minimum service” levels. Then, under the law, the levels are set by the government. A union can refuse to talk with the employer about which people will required to work on strike days to provide those levels. Then, under the law, the employer can name people unilaterally.

If the union refuses to “take reasonable steps to ensure that all members of the union who are identified in the work notice” will break the strike, then a court can grant an injunction against the whole industrial action.

And if the union can finesse it by a tongue-in-cheek “instruction” to members to comply, coupled with tacit union signals not to comply, then the boss can discipline those workers not complying. Under already-existing legislation, a court will grant an injunction against industrial action opposing the disciplinary action.

There is really no option of “non-compliance” just by folded arms. A union can really defy the legislation only by striking in direct conflict with an injunction.

Unions’ choice is to submit to the new law, or to go for high-stakes direct defiance (not just “non-compliance”) by strikes in conflict with injunctions.

Those strikes will make the union liable to a fine, or even to having its assets seized. The only answer then is further direct defiance, i.e. the union to appeal for wildcat action against the fine or seizure.

That will be a break from union policy ever since the Thatcher laws of the 1980s. We have had many strikes, generally workplace-level, in conflict with those laws, which the bosses and the government have considered too hot to handle with those laws. But not unions directly defying the courts.

Transferring assets abroad, as the National Union of Mineworkers tried to do in 1984-5, is not really an answer. Having accounts abroad so that the union cannot pay rent on its offices, wages to its officials, or strike-pay to its members, and has difficulty getting dues from its members, would paralyse union functioning as much as the government fining it.

In Australia, where anti-strike laws are harsher than they would be in Britain even with the Minimum Service Law, it has been fairly common for unions to strike in conflict with the law and pay the ensuing fines. But unions do that less and less. It’s not a long-term answer, because it erodes union capacities.

Direct defiance, breaking injunctions, can work, for the same reason that the bosses and the government have chosen not to deploy the laws against strikes. Strikes could push courts into imposing only nominal fines, and thus prepare the way for the Minimum Service Law to be abandoned as unworkable.

It won’t be easy. If employers and the government are cunning, they will make the prescribed “minimum service” really minimal, at first anyway. Employers will avoid naming union activists for the “minimum service” work. When individual workers defy “minimum service” prescriptions, strategically-thinking employers will impose only minor discipline (a written warning, say).

There will be many in the unions saying that we should box clever and find ways of effective industrial action while formally complying with “minimum service” law. In the short term it may be plausible.

Then, in the longer term, the government and employers can tighten the grip of the law, making the “minimum service” ever larger, the penalties for individual workers sharper, so that the law bites harder.

Cunning workarounds can also be counterproductive in the coming years, by giving an incoming Labour government an excuse on its promise to repeal the law – it seems to be doing little harm, Starmer can say, and in the meantime there are other priorities.

The first step is to get a proper national demonstration against the Minimum Service Law. But the next step – and it starts now: we walk on two legs – is to commit unions to defy injunctions introduced to implement that law.

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