The Government has launched its reform legislation designed to toughen up existing laws on strike action, well trailed during the general election campaign. 

The Trade Union Bill, which had its first reading in Parliament on Wednesday 15th July, proposes a threshold of 50% turnout of those entitled to vote in any strike ballot. In addition, there would be a requirement for at least 40% of all eligible members in core public services including health, education fire and border security to support the industrial action. 

By way of example, in the case of 100 teachers asked to strike, this double threshold would require 50 teachers to vote and 40 to support the strike action for it to be lawful. Under current rules, all that is needed for a strike is a simple majority support of those that take part in the ballot, whatever that number. Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, said that these change are being introduced “so that strikes only happen when a clear majority of those entitled to vote have done so and all other possibilities have been explored.” 

The Bill compels unions to renew any strike mandate with a fresh ballot after four months, and ballot papers must provide a clear description of the trade dispute and the planned industrial action to ensure members are clear what they are voting for. The Government has said it feels forced to act due to the number of strikes called on the London underground, railways or in schools based on small turnouts or two year old ballot mandates. 

The Bill also sets out plans to repeal the current prohibition on the use of agency workers to cover those on strike, and unions will be required to give employers 14 days’ notice of strike action (increased from the current 7 days). 

Other proposals include: 

  • banning automatic ‘opt-ins’ to political donations from trade union subscription fees; 
  • tackling intimidation of non-striking workers by making this a criminal offence; and
  • a requirement to have a named official available at all times to police, and to oversee, the picket line.

These reforms arguably represent the biggest shake-up to industrial action for 30 years. The move is, unsurprisingly, a very controversial one, with commentators against change suggesting that it will effectively rule out industrial action as a meaningful tool open to unions. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said the Bill would “make it almost impossible for workers to exercise what is their democratic right and civil liberty.” 

Together with the Bill, the Government has published three consultation documents on the main issues stemming from the proposed reforms. These consultations will remain open until 9 September 2015 and CMS Partner Robert Davies will be chairing the Employment Lawyers Association (ELA) working group that will respond to the “Hiring agency staff during strike action: reforming regulation” consultation. In the meantime, the current laws on trade unions will remain in place until, and only if, the Bill is brought into force and becomes an Act of Parliament.