Unions and employers advocate competing strike law reforms

During September and October 2010, the main UK trade union and employer bodies made competing calls for changes to the law governing industrial action. The Trades Union Congress believes that unions face unduly onerous requirements when organising industrial action. The Confederation of British Industry argues that tougher regulation is needed to minimise the incidence of strikes. A spokesman for the Prime Minister says the government has no plans to change the law in this area.

TUC calls for relaxation of existing rules

In September 2010, the annual conference of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) supported a resolution calling for changes to the law governing industrial action. This was in the light of a series of legal cases against unions for breaches of existing rules governing strikes, and particularly those concerning strike ballots. During 2009–2010, such cases have included Metrobus v Unite, EDF v RMT, BA v Unite (UK1006029I) and Network Rail v RMT.

The resolution ‘[deplored] the recent succession of court cases against [unions] whose members have voted overwhelmingly in favour of industrial action to defend safety, jobs and conditions only for the courts to rule out the action on minor technical grounds’. Noting ‘the sheer difficulty and complexity’ of conducting industrial action ballots under current legislation, the resolution called for the TUC to ‘campaign vigorously for a review and repeal of the anti-union legislation introduced by the previous Conservative government’.

Not all such cases have been won by employers. The TUC General Council Report (1.36Mb PDF) to the conference noted that the Court of Appeal had lifted the earlier injunction in the BA dispute and the High Court had refused to grant an injunction against industrial action by the transport trade union RMT in a dispute with London Underground. Nevertheless, the TUC is concerned that unions face unduly onerous administrative hurdles when seeking to organise official industrial action.

The TUC has welcomed a Private Member’s Bill, introduced in the House of Commons by John McDonnell, a Labour MP, that seeks to prevent minor technical errors providing the grounds for industrial action to be regarded by the courts as unlawful. The bill was due to receive a second reading on 22 October.

CBI proposes tighter regulation of strikes

On 4 October 2010, the main employer organisation, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) published a report (870Kb PDF) calling for, among other things, the tighter legal regulation of strikes. Echoing an earlier report it published in June (UK1007039I), the CBI called for the introduction of a requirement that, to be lawful, strikes must have the support of 40% of balloted members, as well as a majority of those voting.

Related proposals by the CBI include:

  • lifting the legal ban on employers hiring agency workers to cover for striking staff;
  • increasing the statutory notice period for industrial action from seven to 14 days after a strike ballot takes place;
  • enabling a written statement from the employer to be circulated with ballot papers alongside information from the union;
  • imposing stronger sanctions against unions for failing to comply with the law.

Broadly similar calls have been made by the think-tank Policy Exchange, which describes itself as being on the ‘centre-right’, and by the Conservative Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

  • A research note (876Kb PDF) published by Policy Exchange, in September 2010, put forward a range of proposals for changes to industrial relations law, among them that, for strikes to be lawful, a majority of employees in a balloted workplace would have to vote. It also supported the ‘variant of this proposal’ put forward by the CBI – requiring the support of 40% of union members balloted.
  • Mr Johnson told the Conservative Party conference, in October, that he wanted the government to introduce legislation preventing industrial action, unless at least 50% of union members in a workplace had taken part in the ballot.

Reaction

In a press statement on the CBI proposals, TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said:

The UK has some of the toughest legal restrictions on the right to strike in the advanced world. Already the courts regularly strike down democratic ballots that clearly show majority support for action. The CBI proposals are a fundamental attack on basic rights at work that are recognised in every human rights charter, and will be dismissed by any government with a commitment to civil liberties.

At a press briefing on 13 September, the Prime Minister’s spokesperson was asked whether the Prime Minister ‘thought that existing legislation on trade union ballots and strikes was sufficient’. The spokesperson answered ‘yes’; the coalition government had ‘no plans to change anything’.

Mark Hall, IRRU, University of Warwick

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