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The right to strike and the law in Britain

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The introduction of special constraints on the freedom of essential service workers and their unions to take and organise industrial action has been on the Conservative government''s agenda for labour law reform for over a decade. So far, no proposals for legislation specifically directed to this issue have been forthcoming. Some of the general changes in the law of industrial conflict from 1980-1990 have, however, had a particular significance for some workgroups who most probably fall within the essential services area. Of equal if not greater significance have been fundamental, radical changes in the organisation of and practices within these services, some of which have been transferred out of the public sector. This paper outlines first the general law of industrial conflict and then the industrial relations framework in the areas which are generally agreed to be essential services and also those areas which arguably fall under this heading. The implications of the law for these groups of workers are then considered in the light of recent experience. By way of conclusion it is argued that although there has never been any consistent strategy for managing industrial conflict in essential services, the traditional methods of joint regulation and voluntary restraints were increasingly seen to be inadequate in major disputes over the last twenty years. Although no alternative way of regulating conflict in these areas has emerged, the likelihood of major disputes arising in the future has been significantly reduced by the government''s policies on compulsory contracting for the delivery of many services, and fragmentation of the nationalised industries, civil service and National Health Service into smaller units.

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