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EU is urged: No deals with UK unless right to strike is protected

Europe’s unions make plea to MEPs as UK tries to resolve deadlock over Northern Ireland

Adam Bychawski
23 January 2023, 11.33am

The UK’s controversial anti-strike law could hinder attempts to resolve the deadlock over Northern Ireland after MEPs were today urged to ensure protection for workers as a condition of trade negotiations.

The EU and UK are in a stand-off over the Northern Ireland Protocol, which was intended to tackle post-Brexit border issues over the movement of goods.

Business secretary Grant Shapps unveiled plans earlier this month that could force strikers back to work to maintain so-called “minimum service levels” in key industries. Ambulance workers in England represented by Unison and Unite walked out today, with further strikes by GMB and Unite in north-west England and Northern Ireland set to follow tomorrow and Thursday.

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The prime minister has sought to justify the bill by arguing that similar measures already exist in France, Italy and Spain. But openDemocracy revealed that continental unions had rubbished the claims, pointing out that the UK has some of the most restrictive labour laws in Europe.

Now, the general secretary of the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) has written to MEPs closely involved in EU-UK relations urging them to factor in the growing gulf between labour rights in any ongoing negotiations.

“As members of the EU-UK parliamentary delegation, we are asking you to look at workers’ rights, and especially the possibility that any trade agreement with the European Union should ensure protection of the right of association and right to strike,” wrote Jan Willem Goudriaan.

“We are asking you to publicly come out in support of the right to strike and against the UK government unilaterally imposing minimum services levels.”

Goudriaan’s letter addresses the EU delegation of the UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly and the European Parliament committees for international trade and employment and social affairs.

Separately, the three heads of the biggest European trade unions have issued a joint statement today criticising the UK government’s proposals and calling for ministers to give public workers above inflation pay rises.

Ambulance workers have accused the government of “demonising” them in order to justify the controversial bill. A letter from paramedics and other members of the GMB union said claims by ministers that strikes had put lives at risk were untrue and that drivers left picket lines to respond to calls.

Livia Spera, general secretary of the European Transport Workers’ Federation, accused the government of “hindering the right to strike” instead of tackling the root causes of industrial action. “This is a battle for democracy, and we will fully support it, we are fully behind our UK trade unions,” she said.

Minimum service level laws provide some provision for critical services, including emergency services, to continue running during industrial action. While France, Italy and Spain have some form of these measures, trade unions have pointed out that specific staffing levels on strike days are agreed by negotiations between trade unions and employers.

The UK proposals, by contrast, would allow employers to issue “work notices” requiring union members to continue working during strikes to meet minimum service levels. Anyone issued a work notice who went on strike anyway would lose their legal protection from disciplinary action and could be sacked.

Shapps said ministers would consult during the passage of the bill through Parliament what level of minimum service would be required for fire, ambulance, and rail services, adding: “For the other sectors covered in the bill, we hope to reach minimum service agreements so that we do not have to use the powers.”

The UK agreed a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU in December 2020, but relations between the EU and the UK have been strained by disagreements over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Last year, the European Commission took legal action against the UK for not keeping to the protocol and both Boris Johnson and Liz Truss have threatened to scrap the agreement. Negotiations over changes have been underway since October.

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