In July 2015, the government announced plans to introduce a Trade Union Bill to ‘democratise’ industrial action. The Bill was subject to consultation until 9 September 2015. After successfully passing through the Houses of Commons and Lords with minor amendments, the Bill (now the ‘Trade Union Act’) was finally given Royal Assent on 4 May 2016. It will not come into force immediately: phased implementation will commence this year, with some changes to be delayed until 2017.
In short, the Act further regulates the procedure for workers when they want to take lawful industrial action. Outlined below are a summary of the key provisions:
- 50% of eligible voters must vote in any ballot for industrial action to be lawful;
- In certain ‘important public services’, industrial action can only be taken where 50% of eligible voters must have voted and 40% of eligible members have voted in favour of the action;
- A six month expiry date will apply on any mandate to strike (or up to 9 months if both sides agree), following which there must be a further ballot;
- There must be a clear description of any trade dispute and the planned industrial action on the ballot paper, so that all union members are clear what they are voting for;
- The period of notice of strike to the employer will increase from 7 to 14 days;
According to the government, the Act is aimed at improving transparency and oversight of trade unions. In particular, the Government want to ensure that strikes do not happen as a result of a particularly ‘militant’ minority exerting their view and will over a majority within a workforce. However, the legislation has been criticised as restraining workers’ civil liberties, their right to demonstrate about issues that affect them, and making legal strikes much more difficult to implement. Bodies such as the International Labour Organisation, Amnesty International, and Unison have urged the UK government to review some of the more controversial aspects of the Act but only minor amendments were made.
Consequences and advice for employers
The Trade Union Act represents a significant shift in how industrial action can take place within the UK. Given the backlash to it by many bodies and individuals to the Act, it is likely that there will be challenges to it, either through the UK or EU courts, based on the workers’ rights which are limited by it.
The Act appears to be welcome news for employers. It tightens the regulation of strike action amongst a workforce, and minimises a strike’s consequences on an employer. However, as with any new law, there is a risk in terms of unintended consequences. Should the law become so onerous that workers or Unions begin to consider taking unlawful action (e.g. strikes without notice), this will have a significant impact on employers, in terms of negative publicity, loss of resources and revenues, and worsened relations with unions and workforces.
If you would like more information on industrial action or the Trade Union Act, please contact a member of the Devonshires Employment team.