The Government's proposals for trade union reform are being published today. Several public consultations are also to be launched today covering particular controversial aspects of the proposals. These include the stricter balloting requirements for certain key public sectors such as transport, and stricter picketing controls.

The reforms appear essentially to reflect those set out in our May client update, except employers will be interested to see that the proposal to allow employers to engage agency workers to cover absent striking employees has made its way back onto the table. This proposal is also the subject of one of the consultations being launched today.

The reforms will naturally be of interest to employers with unionised workforces or who are attracting union interest. But they will also be of interest to a far wider audience of employers who are indirectly affected by industrial action, for example those whose staff rely on public transport to get to work. For them, the higher balloting restrictions for "essential workers" such as tube and rail staff will be a welcome reform.

The key reforms

The proposals will be controversial, so expect a battle for the Government ahead.  In summary, the main reforms are as follows:

  • a higher "turn-out threshold" of 50% for strike ballots (whilst retaining the requirement for there to be a simple majority of votes in favour of the strike action balloted);
  • in addition to the 50% "turn-out threshold" for strike action in essential public services (health, education, fire, transport and additionally nuclear and border agency), 40% of those entitled to vote must actually vote in favour of industrial action;
  • any industrial action to take place within four months of a ballot, together with a new requirement for the ballot paper to contain a clear description of the trade dispute and the planned industrial action - this will make it difficult for unions holding a single ballot to authorise a series of strikes;
  • picket lines to be further regulated;
  • explicit approval from union members to pay into political funds;
  • review of public funded trade union subsidies;
  • enhancing the role of the Certification Officer in regulating trade unions; and
  • a possible repeal of the current ban on employers from hiring agency workers to cover striking employees.

Some thoughts on what these proposals mean for employers

The new balloting proposals will be of interest to most employers. For those whose workers rely on public transport, the higher turnout and voting thresholds for authorising strike action will certainly make it harder for unions to gain support for a lawful strike. According to a Times report today, last week's London underground strike was supported by a 92% vote, although turnout figures were not revealed. The new rules introduce a new turnout requirement of 50% of all those entitled to vote for a strike to be lawful.  So if less than 50% of voters actually voted in favour of last week's underground strike, it could not have gone ahead, legally at least, notwithstanding how many voted in favour.  A victory for the silent majority?

For employers with unionised workforces, the new balloting requirements will obviously make lawful industrial action less likely, and the new picketing restrictions will assist employers to encourage employees to come to work even if industrial action is called. But may unlawful/wildcat industrial action increase? According to another Times report, Unite (the UK's biggest union) recently passed a motion to remove a caveat from its rule book requiring protests to remain within the law. Does this potentially pave the way for unlawful industrial action?

One of the consultations launched today will seek views on the repeal of the restriction on hiring agency workers to cover absent strikers.  Highly criticised by unions as a measure designed to destroy the effectiveness of strikes, employers with unionised workforces may be interested to consider responding to the consultation. We will be submitting a response, so are happy to include any views or points you may wish to raise in our response, please just get in touch with Chris Holme or Emily Knight.

press release from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills sets out the main features of the reforms.