Plans to modernise London's underground (known as the Tube) to offer a 24-hour weekend service on selected lines has resulted in London being held to ransom as Tube staff walked out in a series of strikes during August 2015. Servicing one of the busiest cities in the world, the Tube has more than three million users every day. Strike action on the Tube therefore causes travel chaos, with London brought to a near standstill as people struggle to find alternative transportation and many avoid travelling into the capital altogether.
Given the significant level of disruption caused by such industrial action (particularly where essential services are affected) and the seemingly increased frequency of such action, the UK Conservative Government has issued proposals to legislate aimed at making it more difficult for strike action to take place in the UK. The Trade Union Bill as it is known, is therefore intended to prevent what the government describes as "disruptive and undemocratic strike action."
The Trade Union Bill includes the following key provisions:
- Unless more than 50 per cent of a union's eligible members vote, the ballot will not be valid and no strike can legally occur.
- Where the strike affects "essential public services," which is likely to include education, health, fire, transport and infrastructure, at least 40 per cent of the members entitled to vote, need to vote in favour of the strike. If not, no strike can legally occur.
- Introducing a four-month time limit for taking industrial action after the ballot has occurred. If action is not taken within this time frame, another ballot will have to be held.
- Introducing an opt-in process, whereby union members must intentionally state that they want to pay a political levy. This is the opposite of the current position, where the levy is automatically taken from an employee's pay unless they take the positive step of opting out.
- Ending the practice of "check off," where union members' subscriptions for union membership are taken directly from their salary and are administered by their employer. Members will instead have to make alternative arrangements for paying their subscription to the union directly.
- Lifting the current ban on employers using agency workers to cover when their own employees are striking.
- Requiring unions to give at least 14 days' notice of strike action to employers.
The unions consider that the proposals are an attack on them, aimed at weakening their membership and hindering their legitimate right to strike. However, requiring a high turnout of members to vote in favour of a strike ensures that whatever action the union takes is representative of the views of the majority of its members. It may involve unions having to think about ways to increase members' engagement levels, but ultimately those bodies exist to represent the views of their members. It also means that, when a union does take action, it will have a much more compelling and representative mandate. The four-month time limit means that unions will have to check again with their members, where a dispute is more drawn out, to ensure that their views remain the same. This again means that action will only be taken when the members feel strongly. The notice requirement and the ability to hire agency workers mean that employers will be able to ensure that disruption is kept to a minimum.
It is important to remember that these proposals are not yet law, as they are still at the bill stage. However, given the majority Conservative Government, it seems likely that the Bill will get the support it needs in order to become law in a form that is close to the current proposals.