Recent industrial action has led to the highest number of working days lost to strikes since November 2011.
With the government set to introduce new strike laws, HRreview has gathered expert insights into what this actually means for unions and employers, as well as how difficult it is to legally call a strike.
The new laws would make it mandatory for unions to confirm a minimum level of service for fire, ambulance and rail services or potentially be sued for a breach of contract.
Julia Kermode, founder of IWORK – the body that champions independent workers, comments on the nature of strikes:
“The anti-strikes bill has all the makings of a disaster. International politicians have already condemned it, yet the government isn’t listening.
“This draconian legislation is simply going to pour fuel on the fire. It’s an abhorrent rule that won’t just erode workers’ rights but will threaten human rights.
“Going on strike isn’t a decision anyone takes lightly, especially as they usually lose pay for doing so. But these people feel they have nowhere left to turn.
“Instead of facing up to the issue head-on, the government is hell-bent on introducing rules that could easily leave the country in worse shape.”
Employment lawyer at Roythornes Solicitors, George Miller discusses what this actually means for unions and employers:
“Strikes are a public right in the UK and recent industrial action has led to the highest number of working days lost to strikes since November 2011.
“Unions act in the interest of employees’ rights but the new legislation would make it possible to sue unions if they do not provide minimum levels of fire, ambulance and rail services under planned anti-strike laws. Further information on what this truly means is expected to be published next week, with MPs debating it shortly after. If passed, it will apply in England, Scotland and Wales only.
“So, what does this mean for unions and workers? Draft legislation allows employers and unions to agree the minimum level of service to be provided during strike action. If they can’t agree after a three-month period, a special Tribunal can decide the minimum level of service instead. Once there is a minimum level of service in place, then when a strike is agreed upon, the employer can provide a list of workers they require not to strike in order to maintain that minimum level of service. If those on the agreed list end up striking, unions could be sued for damages and workers could face dismissal for breach of contract. However, it is yet to be determined what ‘minimum level’ will mean for each of these industries, or how these names will be chosen.
“We’ve already seen an example of this with recent ambulance strikes, where unions volunteered to offer a minimum level of support to focus on life-threatening cases. Although this was down to individuals volunteering to work, this new law will put pressure on employers to carefully assess who they need to work during strikes, and on unions to ensure those who are listed do not take part in the strikes.
“The transport industry was mentioned in the 2019 Conservative manifesto, regarding minimum service levels during strikes, so it is no surprise to see the government expanding its anti-strike laws into other sectors.
“Business secretary Grant Shapps said the measures will help to restore the balance between those wanting to strike and protecting the public from disruption.
“It is clear the government is wanting to put pressure on unions to avoid strikes in the first place and if they do happen – which is likely – unions are held accountable. However, we are yet to understand the full picture and we’re certain unions will not take this lightly. It is already quite difficult to legally call a strike, as the voting rule require a majority of those entitled to vote to do so, and for a majority of those who do to vote in favour of the strike. The recent nurses’ strikes demonstrate this, as votes took place in each NHS trust and not all of the votes passed the threshold to call a strike. It is also inevitable that the new laws – if enacted – will be challenged by the unions in the courts, so there may be uncertainty over the enforceability of these rules for some time.
“Employment law can be very complex and the team at Roythornes brings together years of experience to help individuals understand the situation they are in and the options they have.”
Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview, and host of the HR in Review podcast series. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, and wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at the University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.