The government’s standoff with public sector workers has escalated with plans for a coordinated “day of action” by unions, who have reacted furiously to proposed legislation they say could let ministers effectively ban strikes in some areas.
The day of action – discussed by unions representing staff in the NHS, railways, education and civil service at the Trades Union Congress (TUC) headquarters in London – could include some synchronised strike action, as well as rallies.
While the TUC insists comparisons with a general strike are wide of the mark, they say existing anger over declining real-terms pay and staff shortages has been further fuelled by the proposed anti-strike law unveiled on Tuesday.
Grant Shapps, the business secretary, told the Commons the bill would enshrine the right to strike but also “ensure the safety of the British public”, and did nothing more than put in place protections already used in other countries.
But unions and Labour said the proposal for statutory minimum service levels in six areas – health, education, ambulance, transport, fire, border security and nuclear decommissioning – would exacerbate disputes which needed to be resolved by “negotiation, not legislation”.
The brief text of the bill contained no details about what would constitute a minimum service level in any of the relevant sectors, although Shapps told MPs that ministers would consult on this for fire, ambulance and transport, including rail.
But the powers to “make regulations providing for levels of service where there are strikes in relevant services” will be in the hands of the business secretary, prompting worries among unions that the government could effectively veto strikes by setting overly high minimum service levels.
The 1 February action is formally titled a “protect the right to strike” day, with the TUC saying more information is planned soon on what it involves. It remains to be seen if this would include a highly-disruptive coordinated stoppage across sectors.
The tactic was “seriously discussed” at the multi-union gathering, some unions said. However, it did not command enough support and will seemingly not happen in the widespread form its advocates were suggesting.
Several health unions represented think an all-out strike might be premature given that the talks they held on Monday with the health secretary, Steve Barclay, provided tentative hope in key areas, including an improved pay offer for 2022/23.
However, an unknown number of unions do still plan to go ahead and organise strikes in different sectors that day. Trade unions are legally obliged to give all affected employers 14 days notice of their intention to strike, so the identities of those intending to do this will become clear next week.
A union source said: “One of the things that was seriously discussed at the meeting, which [some unions] were trying to get over the line, was a coordinated day of action on 1 February.
“However, that looks very, very, very unlikely to happen. But some unions will still go out together on 1 February as part of their rolling industrial action that’s happening anyway.”
Pat Cullen, the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, made clear her opposition to coordinated action by different unions and that the RCN would not join such a move. Officials in other unions said they feared that any concerted stoppage, involving massive disruption to a range of key public services, could reduce public support for the ongoing campaign of strikes.
“Our dispute is about the nursing profession and doing a deal for nursing is my only priority. My members spoke very clearly to give the RCN a unique mandate for strike action. Our days of action and future planning is based only on what is best for nursing,” she said.
While unions need to abide by strict laws on ballots before striking, coordinated action is legal, such as the mass stoppage by 2 million public sector staff in 2011 over pension reform.
There is notable anger among unions about the new anti-strike bill, which will apply in England, Scotland and Wales, and which ministers hope will become law later this year.
Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the RMT rail union, called it “an attack on human rights and civil liberties which we will oppose in the courts, parliament and the workplace”, while Sharon Graham, the leader of Unite, called it “another dangerous gimmick from a government that should be negotiating to resolve the current crisis they have caused”.
Paul Nowak, the TUC’s general secretary, said on Tuesday that the proposed anti-strike legislation was “undemocratic, unworkable and almost certainly illegal” and was a “sack key-workers bill”.
Introducing the bill in the Commons, Shapps singled out unions representing ambulance crews, who strike again on Wednesday, for not setting out national minimum service levels.
“While we absolutely believe in the right to strike, we’re duty bound to protect the lives and the livelihoods of the British people,” Shapps said. The new ambulance strike “will result in patchy emergency care for the British people – and this cannot continue”, he said.
Shapps added: “We do not want to use this legislation. But we must ensure the safety of the British public.”
The Unison trade union said Shapps’ characterisation of the ambulance strike as meaning there would be insufficient coverage was “a lie”.
Ambulance staff will stagger their industrial action over the course of the day to cover gaps, with none walking out for more than 12 hours and many doing so for no more than six hours.
Responding in the Commons for Labour, the party’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, described the bill as a distraction from the wider problems of staff shortages and low pay that have prompted strikes in so many public areas.
Rayner said that one of her constituents died recently while waiting for an ambulance: “That was not on a strike day. That is because of the disastrous chaos we have in the system under this Conservative government. His government offers no solution because they have caused the problem.”
Shapps “knows the NHS cannot find the nurses that they need to work on the wards”, Rayner said. “He knows the trains don’t run even on non-strike days, such is the shortage of staff. So how can he seriously think that sacking thousands of key workers won’t just plunge our public services further into crisis?”
The legislation showed, Rayner said, “a government that is out of ideas, out of time, and fast running out of sticking plasters; a government that is playing politics with nurses’ and teachers’ lives because they can’t stomach the cooperation and negotiation that’s needed.
“We need negotiation, not legislation. So when is the minister going to do his job?”
Labour has pledged to repeal the restrictions if they do become law and it is elected.