The Government is introducing fundamental reforms to modernise trade union law, which it believes will reduce strikes in essential public services by 65%. Employer organisations have welcomed the changes, which are intended to fulfil the Conservative Party's manifesto promise to curb disruptive and undemocratic strike action. This article looks at the main provisions in the Trade Union Bill.
The Government is currently consulting on three issues connected with the Bill: ballot thresholds in important public services; hiring agency staff during strike action; and tackling intimidation of non-striking workers. All three consultations are open until 9 September: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/trade-union-bill.
The Bill includes a new threshold on industrial action ballots, which means that at least 50% of union members entitled to vote must turn out for a ballot. Where a majority of those eligible to vote work in "important public services", at least 40% of those eligible to vote must vote in favour (in addition to the 50% participation threshold). The new 40% threshold will apply to the fire, health, education, transport, border security and nuclear decommissioning sectors. The Government is consulting on the occupations and functions in these sectors that will be subject to the 40% threshold and whether support staff in ancillary roles should also be covered. The Government's rationale is that an occupation should be included if strike action in that area could risk death or serious injury, risk public safety or national security, seriously impair economic activity or prevent significant numbers of people from getting to work.
The Government is proposing that a ballot will need to be run under the 40% threshold rules if a majority of workers involved in the dispute are subject to the 40% threshold, which may be difficult for a trade union to assess and demonstrate.
Unions will have to include additional information on ballot papers, including information about the dispute, what type of industrial action is proposed and when it is expected to take place.
A ballot will only be valid for four months after the voting papers are sent out; if the union wants to take further action after this time, a new ballot will be required.
If any of the balloting requirements are not complied with, the employer will be able to apply to court for an injunction to prevent a strike from taking place. The new requirements will not apply to ballots where voting papers are sent out before the new law takes effect; we may therefore see a temporary increase in the number of ballots before the law comes into force.
Notice of industrial action
Unions will have to give at least 14 days' notice of industrial action to employers, rather than the current seven days. Confirmation of the ballot results will have to include the number of individuals entitled to vote and whether the new thresholds have been met.
Picketing is already governed by a framework of civil and criminal law and a statutory Code of Practice on Picketing, which was last updated in 1992. The Government intends to reform and modernise the existing rules to ensure they cover social media and protests linked to pickets and to make the rights and remedies of non-striking workers, the public and businesses clearer. The Bill will make key aspects of the Code legally binding and may introduce a new criminal offence of intimidation on the picket line.
A union will have to appoint a supervisor to oversee the picketing and will have to inform the police in advance of the time and place of the picket. If a union breaches these requirements, an employer will be able to apply to court for an injunction and to seek damages. Unions may be required to publish their plans in relation to picketing and protests each time industrial action is called, with details being given to the employer, the police and the Certification Officer (CO). The Government also proposes to require unions to include in their annual report to the CO details of public demonstrations and picketing, whether anyone has been arrested and whether any injunctions have been obtained. This would be enforceable by the CO, who will be able to fine a union for any breach.
Hiring agency staff
The ban on employment businesses supplying temporary workers to do the work normally done by striking workers will be repealed, with the aim of reducing the impact of strike action on the wider economy and society by ensuring that businesses can continue to operate during a strike. This means that employers will be able to hire temporary workers to cover the work normally done by those on strike or by other workers covering for their colleagues who are taking part in industrial action. This change will require an amendment to the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses Regulations 2003, which currently prohibit employment businesses from supplying temporary staff in this situation.
Political donations and check-in arrangements
In future, individual members will have to opt in to political donations (rather than opting out) and will have to renew their opt-in every five years.
The Government has also announced that the system of check-in – under which employers deduct trade union subscriptions from salaries and pay them over to trade unions - will be abolished in the public sector.
The Bill will have its second reading in the House of Commons after the summer recess. The evidence received from the three consultations will be collated and assessed, after which the Government will introduce regulations setting out further details of the new law. The Government has not yet said when it intends to bring the law into force.