Since the global recession of 2008/2009, business groups have been asking the government to reform strike laws due to the cost of strikes to employers and the public purse.
Newly appointed Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, made it clear that “significant changes” to strike laws were very much on the agenda under the new Conservative government and we have now seen the proposals set out in the Queen’s Speech.
The government has stated that the new Trade Union Bill will “ensure that strikes are the result of clear, positive and recent decisions by union members”.
We take a look at the four key strike proposals and their impact on a union’s ability to call a strike.
The key proposals
1. Impose a minimum threshold of 50% of voters to turn out to vote on union ballots
Currently, a union can call for a strike if the majority of those voting support the strike action, but there is no minimum number that must turn up to vote on a union ballot. The impact of such a change is best illustrated by looking at the strike in 2012 held by the NUT over pay and pensions which proceeded based on a 27% voter turn out. Since voter turn out is often relatively low and motions are passed on a simple majority of votes in favour, strikes are sometimes called with considerably less than 50% of the workforce actually voting in favour. This proposal will significantly undermine the ability of union members to strike.
2. In essential public services, at least 40% of those entitled to vote must vote in favour of striking
This proposal is limited to the health, education and fire and transport services. Public sector unions will find it even harder to call strikes with this additional threshold. Currently, a strike can be called by a simple majority of those voting.
3. Include new measures to tackle intimidation of non-striking workers during a strike
No details have been issued on what this means or how it will work. However, unions are suggesting that this measure will criminalise those on the picket line. Some unions are even concerned that it could outlaw the use of social media to support strikes.
4. Put in place a new three-month time limit following a ballot in which strike action must take place
At present, provided strike action is started within a four-week period (or a longer period of up to eight weeks, as agreed), then a strike may be suspended and restarted in reliance on the original ballot. This has brought about some peculiar results where unions have tried to rely on a ballot carried out 11 months earlier. The imposition of a three month time limit would force trade unions to undertake fresh ballots which will cost them considerable time and further expense.
Trade unions are calling these proposals “anti-trade unions, anti-working people having a voice and anti-democratic” with the TUC stating, “The government’s proposals on union ballots will make legal strikes close to impossible.”
It is easy to see why trade unions are jumping up and down at these reforms and we wait to see how the inevitable battle between the government and the unions unfolds. Will the proposed changes in fact stimulate strike action and industrial unrest in the short term?