Employer organisation calls for tougher rules on strike ballots

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In June 2010, the Confederation of British Industry published an agenda for the new coalition government in the area of employment relations and labour market regulation. As part of its agenda, the CBI called for tighter rules governing strike ballots and for a shorter statutory period for redundancy consultation. The proposals were strongly criticised by trade unions. It remains to be seen how far the new government will adopt the ideas.

On 21 June 2010, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) published a report entitled Making Britain the place to work (700Kb PDF) which set out ‘an employment agenda for the new government’. The report identified a series of regulatory changes the CBI would like to see in the area of employment relations and the labour market.

Key proposals

The CBI called for changes to the rules governing strike ballots to ensure that industrial action can go ahead only if 40% or more of those balloted support it, as well as a majority of those voting. The CBI also argued that the law should ensure that only current, subscription-paying members are eligible to take part in strike ballots.

The CBI wants the statutory consultation period for collective redundancies affecting 100 or more employees to be shortened from 90 to 30 days to enable employers to restructure their workforces more quickly in response to falls in demand. The report adds that ‘the government should seek to arrest the trend towards European-style consultation on whether redundancies are necessary as well as how they are done’, which the CBI believes is being driven by the courts.

The CBI proposes that the statutory procedure enabling unions to apply to the Central Arbitration Committee for recognition should be amended so that recognition is no longer awarded on the grounds of majority membership in the proposed bargaining unit. It argues that ‘for some, union membership is no longer primarily about the opportunity to be covered by collective bargaining’, and that ‘many unions now offer various other services and benefits for members’. The CBI wants the law to be amended so that ‘ballots should always be held to enable employees to demonstrate whether or not they support [union] recognition’.

On other issues, the CBI’s report calls for:

  • the retention of the individual opt-out from the EU working time directive’s 48-hour limit on weekly working hours (UK0901039I);
  • an increase in the state pension age to 70 by the 2030s;
  • the retention of a default retirement age as part of the legal framework on age discrimination (UK0911029I);
  • returning as much control as possible over employment regulation from EU-level to the UK legislature;
  • simplification of the UK agency working regulations;
  • a review of the UK Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations to enable companies to harmonise the terms and conditions of newly acquired employees with those of its existing workforce;
  • the reintroduction of a limit on discrimination awards from employment tribunals to give claimants more realistic expectations of potential awards and encourage the resolution of disputes.

The CBI also expresses support for the new government’s commitment to extend the right to request flexible working to all employees, subject to employers being given sufficient time to adapt as well as guidance on how to prioritise requests (UK0904039I).

TUC criticism

Brendan Barber, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), called the CBI proposals a charter for exploitation at work. He said: ‘The UK already has some of the toughest legal restrictions on the right to strike in the advanced world. The courts regularly strike down democratic ballots that clearly show majority support for action. Any further restrictions would be extremely unfair and almost certainly breach the UK’s international human rights obligations.’

He added that a reduced, 30-day period for statutory redundancy consultation ‘[would] not provide unions – let alone staff unrepresented by unions – any real chance to develop alternatives or effectively negotiate changes’.

Commentary

In the light of the CBI’s report, there has been some speculation that the government is considering toughening the law on industrial action. At a Downing Street press briefing on 5 July, the prime minister’s spokesperson was asked if the government had any plans to reform strike legislation but replied that there were no plans at the present time. However, the coalition agreement (575Kb PDF) setting out the programme of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government includes a commitment to review employment and workplace laws for employers and employees, ‘to ensure they maximise flexibility for both parties while protecting fairness and providing the competitive environment required for enterprise to thrive’. In the context of such a review, it seems likely that the CBI’s agenda will prove influential with ministers.

Mark Hall, IRRU, University of Warwick

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