The Government's proposals on trade union reform have been a topical issue throughout 2015 and have developed into draft legislation following consultations; 2016 will see their implementation.

Of key interest to employers who have relationships with unions, the proposed changes are also of general interest to all those who deal with employee issues (including those who have historically been indirectly affected by industrial action, such as by way of travel disruption on the tube). 

What do you need to do now?

In regard to the actual reforms, it will be case of watching this space until they are implemented.  

However, employers with unionised workforces should make themselves aware of what the changes will entail and factor this into their industrial relations strategies. As always, fostering good industrial relations and facilitating dialogue with union personnel is beneficial, both to avoid disputes occurring and to help de-escalate disputes if and when they do arise. 

For employers who don't have union relationships, there is nothing to do at this time although we hope this bulletin will be of general interest.

What are the key features of the reforms?

  • The removal of a ban on using agency workers during industrial action
  • The end to the indefinite use of ballots to legalise industrial action- and capping the use of a successful ballot at four months
  • The increase in notice of industrial action to two weeks (to allow further negotiation and preparation time)
  • The toughening of voting requirements to pass a ballot (50% turnout and 50% of those who vote in favour outside of "important public services")

What are the key considerations for employers?

In our view, employers with union relationships should consider the following in preparation for the changes:

The ability to use agency workers to replace striking workers.

  • This has been welcomed by employers, as it will allow employers to mitigate disruption to the business.  However, the extent to which this will have an impact will depend on the availability of a sufficiently trained agency workforce and it will therefore differ from industry to industry.  Businesses supplying agency workers may want to take this into consideration and assess what resourcing they need to meet demand prompted by industrial action.

More notice of industrial action

  • The increase to two weeks' notice of industrial action will allow employers additional time to negotiate a resolution with their unions and put contingency arrangements in place to mitigate the disruption caused by any action.  Employers who may be impacted by industrial action indirectly, whether due to travel disruption or issues from their suppliers, may benefit from receiving this additional advanced warning - to enable them to plan ahead to minimise impact.  
  • The removal of an indefinite strike mandate will likewise be welcome in providing certainty for employers and preventing unions from taking action based on historic strike ballots, which may no longer reflect the views of those originally balloted.

The effect of stricter balloting requirements

The Government's intention is clear.  But the impact is not.  Tougher balloting requirements may potentially lead to more difficult industrial relations, and unions working harder to "get their vote out", which may entrench things further.  Employers will need to guard against this through seeking to maintain their good union relationships at all times.

Final thoughts

Employers (whether unionised or not) will of course welcome these reforms. However, employers should be aware of the potential union response to these reforms, and maintain their focus on maintaining good industrial relations.

Key dates

  • We understand that the government's response to its consultation on repealing the ban on the use of agency workers is expected very shortly
  • The government plans that the Trade Union Bill will receive final approval in early 2016 
  • We will be holding our next Trade Union forum in Spring 2016 and will look to focus on improving relations with unions – both when disputes are developing, and at the Acas stage – so as to seek to avoid industrial action actually taking place.  We hope to have two guest speakers, one from the Employer side, and one from Acas.