Trade union legislative reform is always a subject of interest in the social housing sector as many housing associations have had industrial action over the last few years. There is currently much debate as to whether the reforms proposed by the government go too far.
When people consider trade unions they tend to think about personalities such as Scargill, Thatcher, Corbyn, McCluskey, etc and to view groups of strikers such as tube and train drivers, teachers and nurses with feelings of either sympathy or disdain. Feelings vary with much alignment to political views and preconceived ideas which are not always accurate.
When looking at the reforms proposed in the Trade Union Bill, the common perception is that they are ‘Tory reforms to break the unions’. What those sensitive to trade unions seem to ignore is that not all changes to the way trade unions are restricted are bad and anti-union. A number of such changes have been long overdue and seek to create a more democratic workplace in which a minority group is less likely to prejudice the majority of employees in a workplace. When considering this debate we should try to concentrate on the issues.
The current process for undertaking industrial action
There are currently various administrative tasks which need to be undertaken by a union when preparing to hold a ballot for strike action. These are widely understood by trade unions and the courts have become more sympathetic where there have been small technical breaches. The main aims of such requirements are to ensure that an employer has notice of strike action and the details of and reasons for the ballot and that relevant employees are aware of their right to vote. So far so good and both sides to a dispute comply with such requirements without too much protest.
For a strike to be lawful all that is required - assuming the administrative tasks above have been carried out - is a majority vote by those who take part in the ballot. Here is an example of how the law works as it stands. Company A recognises the union Unite; Unite goes through the necessary formalities when organising the ballot; 100 employees are entitled to vote; only three employees turn up to vote and two of these employees vote in favour of a strike while the remaining one is a ‘no’ voter.
Is a strike now possible? Yes, a strike may lawfully take place despite the fact that only 2% of those entitled to vote are in favour of it. We have all heard the horror stories of what harm a strike can do to a business and, as the law stands, a very small minority could potentially bring a business to its knees. This makes no sense at all. This is a loophole the size of a black hole that needs closing.
The proposed changes
The Trade Union Bill does this by imposing a minimum 50% turnout. Public sector strikes would require the backing of at least 40% of those eligible to vote. Other proposed changes include:
- A four month time limit for taking industrial action after a ballot. This would mean that the support of employees is being regularly considered and disputes do not drag on for years where employee support has fallen
- Greater protection for non-striking workers from intimidation (which can only be a good thing)
- A requirement of 14 days’ notice of strike action instead of seven days. This would provide more time for a potential settlement to be reached through conciliation with ACAS
- Permitting agency staff to be used to fill the gaps left by striking workers. This is a right which should never have been intefered with in the first place, particularly when considering the potential danger this caused through stike action where the provision of a continuous service is needed, such as in the care and support sector
- Trade union members having to ‘opt in’ for the dues they pay to be transferred to political parties. This will give them greater choice and it seems fair. To allow such funds to automatically be transferred to a political party (usually Labour) which the union member may not support, as is currently the case, seems wrong and does not sit well with the financial regulation placed upon other businesses and organisations.
As you can see, leaving any policitical affiliations to one side and looking at the proposals from a democratic perspective, they make complete sense. If we examine the proposals with an open mind, the Trade Union Bill provides fairness and protection of democracy and not the opposite as has been suggested by trade unions. But the trade union opposition to the reforms is not surprising. Although the reforms will create a fairer playing field and make sense, they will provide additional restrictions on the trade unions. Wouldn’t any organisation want to fight against increased restriction? This leaves us with a very unsurprising state of affairs but, for those who have read the small print and ignored the hype, it is clear that the reforms are both fair and necessary.