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Sheffield council calls for Labour pledge to reverse minimum service sanctions on unions

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Following the declaration in November by the Scottish government that it “will not co-operate with establishing any minimum service orders here” (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-67344306), Sheffield city council has become the next public authority to state that it will use “the discretion not to issue work notices” in the Tories’ new Minimum Service Levels Act, in order to defend workers’ right to strike.

This was the result of a debate initiated by the socialist councillor Sophie Wilson at the full council meeting held on December 6th. 

Sophie, a Labour Party parliamentary candidate in the 2019 general election who now sits as an independent in the 84-seat authority, had submitted a motion to commit the council not to issue ‘work notices’ in any disputes that it is involved in.  These are the notices employers are empowered to issue to individual workers by the Minimum Service Levels Act to instruct them to continue working during a strike.

Sophie’s motion also called for the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer to pledge that “an incoming Labour government [would] reverse fines and other measures taken against any union under the terms” of the Act.  With a union potentially losing its protection from liability and subsequent claims for damages from non-compliance with the Act, or facing action for contempt of court, realising such a commitment would be an important blow against the anti-union law.

Sheffield council is not controlled by any one party but, since 2022, has been led by a ‘rainbow coalition’ of 31 Labour councillors, 28 Lib Dems and 14 Greens.  They have all consistently voted in the council chamber for cuts to meet the austerity demands of central government, which has seen the real terms spending power of the council decline by 50% since 2010.  But on this occasion they could not agree on a united position.

An amendment from Labour councillors deleting the action points in Sophie’s motion was defeated.  Then some additional debating points were added by the Liberal Democrats and Greens.  After that the motion as a whole was passed, with the commitments made as above still in place.

The power of one

The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) core policy platform for the May 2024 local council elections – the minimum commitments that every TUSC candidate must sign up to – includes the pledge to “demand that councils as employers refuse to issue ‘work notices’ against strikers under the new anti-union Minimum Service Levels Act” (see https://www.tusc.org.uk/19872/24-11-2023/tuscs-core-policy-platform-for-the-may-2024-local-elections/).

The key to making inoperable the new anti-union law is still action organised across the trade union movement.  This must include an immediate national demonstration and preparations for a one-day general strike if the legislation is used to levy punitive damages against an individual union exercising its democratic right to take strike action.  But pressurising public sector employers to refuse to apply work notices is another weapon in the battle. 

Not every council is a ‘hung council’ where the jockeying for position between the different establishment parties can be used for the workers movement’s advantage.  But still the Sheffield motion is an example of what even just one socialist councillor can do.

It is another argument for the widest possible stand of socialist and trade union candidates in the 2024 local elections.

The TUSC all-Britain steering committee will be approving candidates from its first meeting in January.  An application form to be a TUSC candidate is available on the website at https://www.tusc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/2024-Application-form-Cllr.docx and an explanatory TUSC Guide for Election Candidates and Agents can be found on the resources page, at https://www.tusc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/TUSC-Guide-for-Candidates-Agents-2024.pdf. ■

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