Unions seek wide-ranging employment law reforms

As part of a review of the Employment Relations Act, initiated by the UK government in July 2002, the Trades Union Congress has put forward proposals for a wide range of amendments to current legislation.

In July 2002, the Labour Party government announced the start of a review of the operation of the Employment Relations Act 1999 (UK9912145F). This will include a public consultation exercise expected to take place around the end of 2002. In advance of this, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has published a comprehensive submission to the government highlighting the legal changes it wants to see. The final version of the TUC document, Modern rights for modern workplaces, calls for amendments in a range of areas in addition to the Act’s statutory trade union recognition provisions, which are the principal focus of the government’s review.

Among the TUC’s key proposals for amending the Act’s union recognition provisions (UK0201171F) are:

  • abolishing the 21-worker threshold so that all businesses are subject to the legislation;
  • replacing the requirement for a 40% 'yes' vote with a requirement for a simple majority of those workers voting in a recognition ballot;
  • stipulating that only the existing recognition of an independent trade union should act as a bar to applications for recognition or, alternatively, enabling independent unions to apply to the Central Arbitration Committee for the de-recognition of non-independent unions; and
  • introducing legal protection against unfair employer practices (eg victimisation of union activists) during recognition applications, with injunctive relief available to unions.

In the area of industrial action, the TUC argues that:

  • workers should have the right to take industrial action, including solidarity action, without being deemed to have broken their contracts, where a majority or workers in a bargaining unit support it in a ballot;
  • unions should no longer have to provide detailed information to employers enabling them to make plans to offset the effects of the industrial action; and
  • protection against unfair dismissal for workers taking part in lawful industrial action should apply indefinitely, not only for eight weeks.

Following the July 2002 ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in the 'Wilson and Palmer' case (Wilson and others v United Kingdom, [2002] IRLR 568), the TUC is pressing for existing statutory protection for union members against discrimination by employers on the basis of their trade union membership to be extended to include protection against discrimination for making use of the benefits and services membership of the union provides.

Other TUC proposals include:

  • the introduction of a right to 'representation' to replace the current right of employees to be 'accompanied' at workplace disciplinary and grievance hearings (UK0010195F);
  • the extension of the Working Time Regulations 1998 (UK9810154F) to cover the excluded sectors, the abolition of the 'individual opt-out' (UK0202102F), and bank and public holidays to be in addition to the statutory four weeks’ annual leave (UK0209102N);
  • the removal of all qualifying periods for employment protection rights;
  • a review of the law governing the election of union leaders;
  • the repeal of the requirement on unions for 10-yearly membership ballots to maintain a political fund (UK0111106F); and
  • the repeal of current prohibitions on disciplinary action against members by unions.

The Department of Trade and Industry has said that it will complete the review of the Employment Relations Act in time to enable any legislative recommendations that may result from it to be introduced within the lifetime of the current Parliament. While unions attach considerable importance to the review and are hoping it will produce proposals for significant legislative change, the Confederation of British Industry is arguing that the review should be confined to looking at whether there is any need to improve the way in which the current provisions operate. Most commentators expect the exercise will result in only limited changes to the law.

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