Government reforms (1): Trade union bill

mock-employment-tribunalWhat do we already know?

We updated you in our June Newsflash Queen’s Speech that the Government announced in the Queen’s Speech plans to implement its manifesto promise of trade union reform.

What’s new?

The Government has published its Trade Union Bill (available here) and three consultation papers, setting out significant and controversial proposals regarding strike laws and trade union funding.

The proposals are in response to a number of strikes in recent years which have arguably caused significant disruption despite, on the figures, not being supported by a majority of the particular workforce. This situation has arisen because a lawful strike needs only the support of a majority of the workers voting, meaning that very low turnouts of voting workers can still result in legitimate industrial action.

The Trade Union Bill includes:

  • 50% minimum voting threshold for a lawful ballot;
  • an additional threshold of 40% of support to take industrial action in essential services (health, transport, fire and education);
  • the voting paper to identify the dispute and to specify the type and duration of the proposed industrial action;
  • a minimum of two weeks’ notice of strike action;
  • four month time limit for industrial action from the date of the ballot;
  • changes to the ballot paper to give a clear description of the trade dispute and the planned industrial action;
  • a requirement for unions to provide information in their annual return on the amount of industrial action taken on each dispute;
  • requirement for members to make an active choice of opting-in to contributions to political funds;
  • safeguards to prevent intimidation of non-striking workers;
  • a requirement for public sector employers and (yet to be specified) employers delivering public services to publish information about how much time off they allow to trade union officials, with a reserved right to limit the amount and cost of time off allowed;
  • a series of measures to ensure greater scrutiny of unions’ internal governance; and
  • a right for the Certification Officer to impose a levy on unions and employers associations to cover his expenses.

The Government will also consult on a number of its proposed measures including:

  • The proposed introduction of the 40% threshold for strikes in essential public services (Consultation on ballot thresholds in important public services, available here). This consults on who within the fire, health, education, transport, border security, and nuclear decommissioning sectors should be subject to the new balloting threshold;
  • Reforming and modernising the rules and codes of practice on picketing and protests linked to industrial disputes (Consultation on tackling intimidation of non-striking workers, available here). This seeks views on proposed reform of the law relating to picketing and protests to address the problem of intimidation and so-called “leverage tactics” by unions; and
  • The repeal of a ban on the use of agency workers during strikes (Consultation: hiring agency staff during industrial action available here).

The consultations run until 9 September 2015.

The Bill is unlikely to become law before Spring 2016.

Comment: It remains to be seen whether these reforms will lead to a reduction in strikes, but they are likely to make more strikes unlawful. Indeed, UNITE has indicated this week that it has passed a motion to remove from its rule book the words caveating strike action, “so far as may be lawful”. Although this may be just fighting talk, employers will need to remain vigilant to potentially unlawful activity.

Employers should also watch out for unions adopting other methods of protest and collective action, for example campaigning with or without the use of social media or encouraging members to bring grievances, collective or otherwise.