With the disruption caused by last week’s tube strikes still fresh in people’s minds, the Government has today published a press release providing further details on its proposals for strike reform.

The proposals are in response to a number of strikes in recent years which have arguably caused significant disruption to business and consumers, despite, on the figures, not being supported by a majority of the particular workforce.  This situation has arisen because a lawful strike needs only the support of a majority of the workers voting, meaning that very low turnouts of voting workers can still result in legitimate industrial action.

The Government has now confirmed that it will introduce a Trade Union Bill which will implement:

  • A 50% threshold for ballot turn-outs;
  • An additional threshold of 40% of support to take industrial action in key public services such as education and transport;
  • A 4 month time limit for industrial action from the date of the ballot;
  • Changes to the ballot paper to give a clear description of the trade dispute and the planned industrial action;
  • A requirement for members to make an active choice of opting-in to contributions to political funds; and
  • Safeguards to ensure non-striking members of a workforce are able to continue work without intimidation.
  • The Government will consult on a number of its proposed measures including:
  • The proposed introduction of the 40% threshold for strikes in essential public services;
  • Reforming and modernising the rules and codes of practice on picketing and protests linked to industrial disputes; and
  • The repeal of a ban on the use of agency workers.

The consultation will open today and run until September 2015.

Trade unions are, unsurprisingly, highly opposed to the proposed reforms, stating that the proposals will make legal strikes “close to impossible”. UNITE has gone further and indicated this week that it has passed a motion to remove from its rule book the words caveating strike action, “so far as may be lawful”.

The real impact remains to be seen, however.  There is no doubt that the reforms will have a significant impact on sectors which have traditionally seen low levels of turnout, for example in essential public and civil services – where not only a 50% turnout but also a 40% threshold of support will apply.  However, whether this will lead to a reduction in strikes remains to be seen; given the potential sanctions for trade unions in relation to illegal strike activity, unlawful action seems unlikely, despite UNITE’s  amendment to its rules. Employers should, however, remain vigilant to potentially unlawful activity.  Where legal picketing is curbed, employers may see more ancillary protests where employers need to look more broadly at the laws of nuisance and other non-industrial torts, and become more creative about how they deal with concerted action by trade unions. Unions may also adopt a more militant approach in an attempt to galvanise the workforce into turning out and voting.  However, a number of sectors, such as transport, have historically had high levels of turnout in support of industrial action and would already meet the new thresholds. In the rail industry, RMT recently obtained a 60% turnout with an 80% vote in favour of strike action.  In practice, therefore, the impact of the new reforms may be limited in some sectors.

Where lawful strike action does take place, being able to use agency workers to cover striking workers may also not be the ideal solution it seems; this is potentially a piecemeal approach which does not adequately meet the needs of employers or their customers.  The outcome of the consultation on this will therefore be awaited with interest.