ALTHOUGH it’s probably unknown to most, Friday, October 6, was a significant black milestone for workers’ rights in Britain.

It was the last day for making submissions to the Westminster government’s consultation on establishing the code of conduct for how “work notices” will be issued as a result of the passing into law of the Tories’ Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill in July.

“Work notices” are the documents of legal compulsion that will force unionised workers to break their own strikes. Management will get to set them – in terms of the who, why, where and in what numbers.

The consultation was something of a sham as the Tories are in no mood to compromise on the issue. It’s long been a key component of their attempt to slay the union “bogeyman” as part of their strategy to try to reverse the electoral death spiral they are in.

In health, education services, fire and rescue, border security and nuclear decommissioning, governments and employers are now free to have these work notices issued when they face strikes or industrial action short of a strike.

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The Tories want to extend their use further into the NHS and higher education. However, the Scottish Government has pledged not to issue any where it is the employer.

At the TUC Congress last month, there was much talk of defiance and non-compliance of the new strike law but, so far, the agreed special congress to decide on how to respond has not be scheduled and little seems to be happening. The penalties on unions and workers for non-compliance are stiff.

All this means that unions and union members need to look at wildcat unofficial action if they are to not only defy the work notices but be able to take effective industrial action given the other existing restrictions on the ability to strike.

Ironically, this year and last in Scotland when campaigning for higher pay offers, it has been police officers through the Scottish Police Federation who have highlighted the best way to do this. As they cannot lawfully strike, police officers have withdrawn goodwill by not coming in early for their shifts, leaving promptly at the end of them and not being available to be on call if necessary.

This is far in advance of the position taken by their colleagues south of the Border in the form of the Police Federation of England and Wales. Its members have merely and cautiously begun discussing seeking to gain the right to strike.

Even if this was successful, this right to strike would be severely circumscribed, not least through the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023.

Technically and legally, neither the police officers in Scotland nor the Scottish Police Federation have broken any laws so cannot be fined or sacked.

But their police colleagues in the United States have shown how to do this much more powerfully. In numerous big cities – such as Baltimore, Memphis, San Francisco, Cleveland, New Orleans, Chicago, Newark, Detroit and New York – over the last few decades, police officers – who also cannot lawfully strike – have engaged in mass sick outs called the “blue flu”. They phone in sick for short periods so there’s no notice and the actions have been effective. Again, technically and legally, this is not strike action as such, although, of course, practically it is.

So, from a surprising source comes a useful lesson. It is all the more important because, when push comes to shove, it is not unreasonable to question whether the non-compliance policy will be implemented by the TUC and its affiliates.

This is based upon recalling the events of the 1980s. In 1983, the NGA print workers’ union was left to fight alone the effects of the Tories’ new anti-union laws on its ability to take effective action during the Stockport Messenger dispute.

The same could be said about the miners’ union, the NUM, during the 1984-85 strike and then the print unions at Rupert Murdoch’s News International Wapping plant in London between 1986-87.

But it is also based upon recognising that not all unions are equally affected by the Act. Consequently, not all are likely to do what some other unions would hope.

Added to this is that all unions, especially those affiliated to Labour, will come under intense pressure from Keir Starmer not to “rock the boat” by taking this kind of action – which the Tories think gives them the ammunition to attack Labour with in the run-up to the General Election.

Starmer has shown he is ruthless in pursuit of forming a majority government at Westminster. The quid pro quo he will offer is “take no action and Labour will repeal the Act”. That’s a risky proposition as unions might not resist the new law and then Labour might not get in or do what it promised.

Gregor Gall is a visiting professor of industrial relations at the University of Leeds and author of the forthcoming Mick Lynch: The Making of Working-Class Hero, Manchester University Press, 2024