The election which yielded the first Conservative Government in nearly two decades seems a dim and distant memory as the Government’s legislative priorities are beginning to cause friction and debate.
Of a particularly contentious nature are the proposals in the Trade Union Bill relating to ballots for industrial action. The stated rationale for changing industrial relations rules is to limit future disruption to business, the public and essential services of the kind witnessed as a result of the latest London tube strikes. The recent troubling scenes in Calais, partly caused by industrial action, are held up as a compelling reason why the current UK rules on balloting for industrial action need to be changed. The Government contends that for the UK to be a serious player in an increasingly competitive commercial world, the rights of workers must be appropriately balanced with the needs of business. The Government says that the right to industrial action is still supported but only when there is a clear mandate.
At present, a simple majority of those members voting in a ballot is all that is required for a strike to be sanctioned. It is now proposed that there will a requirement for a minimum turnout of 50% of those entitled to vote before such a ballot will be lawful. In the case of industrial action affecting essential public services such as health, fire and education, the support of at least 40% of those eligible to vote (as opposed to those actually voting) would be required before industrial action could be lawfully called.
In addition at the moment the effectiveness of a ballot to give rise to industrial action can be open ended whereas new rules would limit the period of effectiveness to four months after which there would have to be a further ballot.
Other proposed measures include requiring union members wishing to contribute to a union’s political fund to opt in rather than opt out and new rules requiring greater detail on the face of the ballot paper on the nature of trade dispute giving rise to the ballot. The latter is with a view to ensuring that workers are clear about what they are voting for and why.
There are also additional proposed protections for businesses faced with industrial action. Under the Bill, unions would be obliged to provide employers with 14 days’ notice of strike action. Employers would then have the opportunity to bring agency staff in to cover for striking workers thereby reducing the impact of strike that has managed to survive the new ballot rules. The use of agency staff in such circumstances is not currently permitted.
Unsurprisingly, the proposals have been met with angry reactions from union leaders and the newly appointed Labour shadow cabinet. Angela Eagle, newly appointed as shadow business secretary, called it “the most significant, sustained and partisan attack on six million trade union members and their workplace organisations that we have seen in this country in the last 30 years.”
In the 1980s – the last time the power and influence of unions was changed significantly – the industrial climate was different. Industrial action was much more common and much more disruptive. The changes introduced in the 1980s made it much more difficult for industrial action to be called in a lawful manner and those rules have remained in place ever since. The unions therefore question the need for these further changes now and allege that the true underlying reason is the advancement of a political ideology which is anti-union and anti-worker.
Statistics do tend to show that the incidence of industrial action is increasing. The Office for National Statistics has confirmed that the number of working days lost due to labour disputes in 2014 was 788,000 compared with 444,000 in 2013. The 2014 figure is more than the average in both the 2000s and the 1990s, but less than the 1980s when strike action was more prevalent. The increase in working days lost in 2014 was mainly attributable to a number of large scale public sector strikes; strikes that directly affect members of the public – parents, teachers – who have no vested interest in the strike action themselves.
Interestingly, there has been greater incidence of strike action in the private sector in the past three years albeit the large scale strikes in the public sector have resulted in more working days lost than in the private sector.
When the decisions of relatively few can affect so many, arguably, the proposed measures, particularly the requirement for a higher turnout of those eligible to vote, is not unreasonable. The other side of this ideological debate is that the right to strike is an essential and indispensable protection for workers whose individual bargaining power is limited and that these new proposals make that right much more difficult to exercise.
Consultation on these proposed measures closed on 9 September 2015. On its third reading in the House of Commons on 10 November, 305 voted in favour, with 271 against, giving a majority of 34. This is the final stage in the House of Commons and the Bill will now proceed to the House of Lords for consideration.