Despite the Government taking legal action and referring to the current prison officers’ strike being in breach of a ‘no-strike agreement’, employment lawyers are warning that ‘no-strike agreements’ are of little, if any, practical legal value for most employers.
The warning comes as prison officers join a long line of professions which have recently taken to their picket lines over pay and conditions.
Today saw thousands of officers from across England and Wales mount a 24-hour strike at jails across the country including cities like Manchester, Wakefield, Liverpool, Birmingham and London.
But Simon Ost, a partner who specialises in collective labour law at Hammonds, says the prison officers are governed by a different set of rules than the average employer.
He says: “Most employers are delighted if they are able to obtain a ‘no-strike agreement’ from a trade union. No strike agreements are often obtained through collective bargaining at considerable cost to the employer. Employers feel reassured because the words on the piece of paper reflect the future they want. Unfortunately for those employers, the reality is very different: the words are usually meaningless; whilst the bargain made to obtain them is very real.”
Ost explains: “Collective Agreements, including ‘no strike agreements’, are generally not legally binding between employer and trade union. In which case the employer cannot take legal action against a trade union that ignores a ‘no strike agreement’, however blatant.”
In order to be effective between employer and employee, even in theory, a ‘no-strike agreement’ must meet a set of statutory criteria. This can be done but an employee who goes on strike is in breach of contract anyway – in breach of the obligation to provide service to his or her employer. The fact that an individual is also in breach of a specific no-strike obligation doesn’t really alter the position for most employers.
All in all employers should be advised of the limited effect and therefore limited value of ‘no-strike agreements’ and the danger of relying on them at face value.
“The Government is relying on a very unusual type of agreement, whilst other employers don’t have the same luxury,” continued Ost.
Ost has dealt with industrial action across a wide variety of industry sectors and advises various household names on collective labour law issues including preventing, dealing with and ending industrial action. This has included the novel step of obtaining injunctions to prevent even a ballot on the question of industrial action in the first place.