From education to employment

Trade Union Bill

The government is proposing wide-sweeping reforms of the law on industrial action. Although the Trade Union Bill has just closed its consultation stage, it is hotly debated between employer organisations and unions as the effects of these reforms could tip the balance of power – in favour of the employer – in cases of industrial action.

Reforms to voting procedures

The government is proposing to increase the support required for unions pushing for industrial action and greater transparency in the ballot process. The consultation on the Trade Union Bill includes the following proposals in this regard:

Voting thresholds

The consultation proposes that, in addition to the current legal requirement that 50% of the votes cast must be in favour of industrial action, at least 50% of the eligible members participate in the ballot. Moreover, for strikes affecting important public services, such as health, fire, education and transport services, 40% of eligible members would have to vote in favour of action. Unions have reported that these required turnout figures are often a lot higher than the participation levels currently seen.

More transparency in ballots

It is proposed that the voting papers would have to include reasonable details about the issue in dispute, details of the proposed action, as well as an indication as to the period within which the industrial action is expected to take place. Furthermore, members would have to be informed of how many union members were eligible to vote and which percentage of them voted.

Time restrictions on industrial actions

The consultation proposes that, in order to promote a higher level of legitimacy in strikes, industrial action will have to be carried out within four months of the ballot approving it. Under current legislation, industrial action could potentially be suspended and pursued repeatedly as part of the same action, in theory for a much longer period than the proposed four months after a ballot.

Tackling intimidation of non-striking workers

In today’s world, social media is a large part of our everyday lives, even in relation to industrial action. Pictures of workers not participating in strikes, on their way to work or even at their homes, are often posted on social media as part of picketing and intimidation techniques to coerce individuals into participating in industrial action. The government is proposing to introduce new restrictions on picketing to reduce incidence of intimidation over social media or in person.

It is also proposed that unions must notify police of their plans each time any picketing actions are planned, including whether any social media platforms are to be used. Participants must also be informed of the laws regarding picketing and will have to be supervised by a designated picket supervisor familiar with any codes of practice dealing with picketing. This person will have to be present at the picketing or readily contactable, easily identifiable (e.g. by wearing an armband) and carry with them an authorisation letter from the union.

Permitting the use of agency workers during strikes

A further proposal is to reverse the restriction which currently prevents an employment business from supplying an employer with agency workers during official industrial action.

How does this affect FE colleges?

The proposals appear to be naturally welcomed by employer organisations who consider it fair, highlighting the importance of workers who are not striking being protected against intimidation from picketers and that any industrial action must have the clear support of the members of the union pursuing it.

Unions, on the other hand, feel that the proposals are likely to make it more difficult to take legitimate industrial action and that the bill is designed to erode the unions’ bargaining power.

While the consultation is ongoing, it is difficult to gauge which proposals will receive support and whether some proposals will be thrown out entirely. Therefore, the future impact of the proposals to FE colleges is yet to be determined and as ever the devil is in the detail. However, commentators suggest that this is the biggest overhaul of industrial action regulation since the 1980’s and so both employer organisations and unions are likely to await the results of consultation with bated breath.

Sarah Burke is a solicitor at Thomas Eggar, the law firm

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