The Government has today announced the introduction of its Trade Union Bill (see here). This announcement follows swiftly on from the recent strike by four unions in a dispute about the launch of a new night service which led to the London Underground being shut down for more than 24 hours last week and more strikes expected in August.
The Government’s announcement does not hold any real surprises for employment lawyers. It reflects in the main its pre-election manifesto (see here) with the Bill introducing amongst other matters:
- A 50% threshold for ballot turn-out;
- An additional threshold of 40% of support to take industrial action from all members eligible to vote in the key health, education, fire, transport, border security and energy sectors;
- Setting a 4 month time limit for industrial action so that mandates are always recent;
- Requiring a clear description of the trade dispute and the planned industrial action on the ballot paper so that all union members are clear what they are voting for; and
- Safeguards to ensure non-striking members of a workforce are able to go about their business without fear of intimidation.
However, the Government has indicated that there will be a consultation starting today and ending in September on some specific aspects: the 40% threshold for public sector disputes referred to above, the proposals to reform and modernise the rules and code of practice on picketing and protests linked to industrial disputes and the proposed repeal of a ban on the use of agency workers. All of these are likely to be highly controversial. We shall be reviewing this consultation. Please let us know if you would like to be involved.
One notable absence is a reform of the voting procedures. Currently, union members provide their vote by postal ballot. With new thresholds to be introduced and the 4 month time limit on an industrial action mandate calls have been made for steps to be introduced making it easier for union members to vote – for example, by introducing electronic voting systems.
Indeed, the unions have already heavily criticised the provisions expected in the Bill with the TUC General Secretary Frances Grady referring to them as an “affront to fair play”.
Whilst the Bill now begins its progress through Parliament and we await the outcome of the consultation, UNITE has already raised the stakes by passing a motion to remove the caveat from its rule book requiring protests to remain within the law. The union’s objectives will no longer be predicated with the phrase “so far as may be lawful”.
It will be interesting to see whether the rule change will alter the approach UNITE adopts in respect of the disputes they are engaged in or whether it is a simply a statement of intent to be read in the context of a wider campaign against the proposals. In practical terms, given the onerous consequences of a union supporting unlawful strikes or industrial action, it seems highly unlikely that the change will result in unions now backing unlawful action and intervening where, for example, there has been no ballot or where the levels of support do not reach the requisite level to justify industrial action. Increasingly unions are resorting to industrial protest – sometimes engaging in high profile events designed to highlight a particular issue to an employer’s suppliers, customers or the public at large in an attempt to secure the changes they seek on behalf of their members – the UNITE leverage strategy is an example of this. The rule change, as well as keeping employers guessing, potentially opens up more options for engaging in this type of activity.