Rishi Sunak faces a fresh fight with unions for promising “tough” new laws to limit the impact of strike action, as he was warned they will not be “intimidated by anti-trade union attacks”.
Sharon Graham, general secretary of the Unite union, told the Prime Minister on Wednesday “we are ready industrially and financially” to challenge any new measures.
Mr Sunak did not rule out banning strikes in emergency services, after Downing Street suggested his measures will include widening long-delayed legislation to ensure minimum levels of service during industrial action on transport to other public services.
But these are unlikely to be introduced in time to avert imminent strikes, as Border Force staff became the latest workers to announce disruptive action over the Christmas period.
Mr Sunak is under increasing pressure to curb a “winter of discontent”, with nurses, paramedics and postal and rail workers among those going on strike.
At Prime Minister’s Questions, he vowed to limit disruption and said he has been “reasonable” in dealing with public sector pay demands.
“But if the union leaders continue to be unreasonable, then it is my duty to take action to protect the lives and livelihoods of the British public,” he said.
“That’s why since I became Prime Minister I have been working for new tough laws to protect people from this disruption.”
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman declined to provide a timeline or any details on the plans, saying only they were to be brought in “as swiftly as possible”.
He indicated the minimum service level legislation, first promised in 2019, could be extended from imposing minimum service levels on transport to other public services.
In an interview with the BBC, Mr Sunak did not rule out considering banning strikes in emergency services, instead stressing he will do “what I need to do in order to keep people safe, and to ensure that people can go about their day to day lives free of the enormous disruption that these strikes are going to cause”.
Labour vowed to oppose the “unworkable” minimum service levels legislation.
Ms Graham accused Mr Sunak of attacking unions as they fight to get workers more pay as prices soar.
“No-one will be fooled by this attempt to divert attention away from the sheer incompetence of this Government,” she said.
“For Unite, this is very clear. We will not be intimidated by anti-trade union attacks. If they put more hurdles in our way, then we will jump over them.
“We are ready industrially and financially. As general secretary of Unite I will continue to fight and win for workers.”
The new legislation Mr Sunak appeared to be referring to, the Minimum Service Levels Bill, is currently stalled in Parliament and MPs have not begun debating it.
He is under pressure from Tory MPs to speed up the introduction of the law that would ensure a certain number of services would still run even during the most disruptive strikes.
His promise of new laws came as he was pressed by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer to do more to resolve the growing wave of industrial action threatening to cause misery this Christmas.
Sir Keir pointed to comments from Transport Secretary Mark Harper suggesting long-promised legislation would not address the current round of strikes.
Later, the Public and Commercial Services union announced border staff working at Gatwick, Heathrow, Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff airports will strike for eight days from December 23 to New Year’s Eve.
The union says that 40,000 of its members employed by the Government rely on foodbanks and 45,000 claim in-work benefits.
Speaking to reporters, a Labour spokeswoman said Labour would repeal the “archaic” 2016 laws brought in under the Tories, which could make it easier for strike ballots to take place.
The spokeswoman said “we think minimum service legislation would be unworkable” but as the laws had not yet been brought in the party could not commit to repealing them.
Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC federation of trade unions, accused Mr Sunak of “attempting cheap political pot shots”.
“Public sector workers would love to be able to deliver minimum service levels. But 12 years of Conservative cuts and mismanagement have left our public services falling apart at the seams,” she said.
“Rather than attempting cheap political pot shots, the Government should be getting around the table and negotiating with unions about pay.”