Liz Truss has promised a further crackdown on trade unions, widening restrictions to a significant new number of industries, but her proposals were immediately criticised as the “biggest attack on civil rights” since the 19th century.
Truss said she would legislate for minimum service levels on critical national infrastructure in the first 30 days of government under her leadership. The pledge would go further than the Tories’ 2019 policy, which promised a minimum service should operate during transport strikes.
The new law proposed by Truss would potentially restrict teachers, postal workers and the energy sector. Tailored minimum thresholds, including staffing levels, would be determined with each industry.
Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT said unions would organise mass resistance if the plans went ahead, calling it “the biggest attack on trade union and civil rights since labour unions were legalised in 1871.”
“Truss is proposing to make effective trade unionism illegal in Britain and to rob working people of a key democratic right,” he said. “If these proposals become law, there will be the biggest resistance mounted by the entire trade union movement, rivalling the General Strike of 1926, the Suffragettes and Chartism.”
The Labour deputy leader, Angela Rayner, said the proposed changes would do nothing to tackle the cost of living crisis, accusing the Tory candidates of a “full-scale arms race to exacerbate tensions and escalate divisions”.
Rail services are to be severely disrupted from Wednesday, with thousands of workers at Network Rail and 14 train operators striking. Further rail strikes are expected this summer and thousands of Royal Mail workers have also voted to strike in a dispute over pay, which could be the biggest industrial action of the summer.
Britain could also face an unprecedented wave of strike action from teaching staff and doctors in the autumn, over their below-inflation pay offers.
Earlier this month, MPs approved controversial plans to allow agency staff to replace striking workers, which unions said could potentially affect the safety of key services.
Truss has also pledged to raise ballot thresholds from 40% to 50% of employees. The move would potentially make it much harder to strike in smaller workplaces where reaching the threshold would require a very high number in favour if there is not full turnout.
Unions have also questioned how Truss would implement a proposed cooling-off period so that unions can no longer strike as many times as they like in the six-month period after a ballot.
Truss has pledged to increase the minimum notice period for strike action from two weeks to four weeks – a pledge which would make it easier for industries to use new powers to employ agency workers to run services.
Announcing the policies, Truss said: “We need tough and decisive action to limit trade unions’ ability to paralyse our economy. I will do everything in my power to make sure that militant action from trade unions can no longer cripple the vital services that hard-working people rely on.”
Both teaching and health unions have warned of potential strike action over the latest pay offers. NHS staff are to receive a rise of at least 4.5%, while teachers will have at least a 5% increase. However, inflation is currently running at 9.1% and is expected to rise to 11% later in the year, according to the Bank of England.
The TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said: “For anyone working today, this would be an unprecedented attack on one of their most important rights – the freedom to take collective action. And it would severely upset the balance of power between working people and employers.
“Instead of taking pot-shots at working people and their unions, the candidates should come up with plans to get wages rising again. That’s how to deal with the cost of living emergency.”
Rayner said that the plans for minimum staffing had never been explained in practice and were “unworkable”. She said: “Liz Truss is looking to blame anyone and everyone else other than herself for the mess the Conservatives have made of the last 12 years.
“Her latest Tory fantasy is dangerously out of touch with reality and ignores the stubborn fact that she has sat around the cabinet table for nearly a decade of pitifully low wage growth, crumbling public services and sleaze at the heart of government.
“As we saw with the government’s plans to break strikes with agency workers, these plans are unworkable, will only erode working people’s rights further and inflame industrial relations at a critical time.”