The Trade Union Act – a Shifty Fifty or Faulty Forty deal for Industrial Action!
The Trade Union Act which received Royal Assent in May 2016, will be in full-swing by 17th March 2017. The Act was first described by the Government, as ‘the Bill which will protect the public from undemocratic action’.
From its initial proposal and conception, the then Bill had been widely condemned by critics ‘as a major attack on civil liberties in the UK’. Many of its controversial provisions such as ‘advance warning of picket plans,’ ‘restrictions on social media’ and ‘a new criminal offence of intimidation’ have since been removed.
However, the Act is still not without its critics – the Welsh Government have recently announced their own Bill to reverse the impact of the Act, as the Welsh Local Government Secretary, Mark Drakeford stated ‘the Trade Union Act would lead to more confrontational relationships between employers and workers, particularly undermining the public sector’.
What remains of the Act?
The Act contains the following key provisions:
- There is a 50% turnout requirement of eligible voters to authorise industrial action and a simple majority must be in favour of action,
- Unions will have to include detailed additional information on the ballot paper, regarding the trade dispute and strike plans,
- Unions must give 14-days’ notice of industrial action, unless waived by the employer,
- Industrial action must take place within 4 weeks of the date the ballot (voting process) ends, unless mutually agreed by the employer.
What is so controversial and why is the public sector up in arms?
Aside from the requirement of 50% turnout, the provisions of the Act will have its greatest impact on the public sector.
The Act contains an additional threshold that 40% of eligible voters must vote in favour of a strike, if they are in the essential public services, this includes: ‘health, transport, and education, fire and border security services’.
So, for example, if you work in an ‘important public service’ and there are 100 unions members, 50 members would have had to vote, and a minimum of 40 of those 50 would have had to vote in favour before industrial action could happen.
The Act has been designed clearly to weaken Trade Unions, as obtaining the necessary thresholds will be an added hurdle.
What is interesting about the Act is the definition of essential public services, whilst many would not argue with the likes of health, fire and security services being considered vital to the whole of the population, both transport and education seem a bit of a stretch to say they’re essential. The Government’s attention seems to be much more focused on the economic impact on the public, than the tradition definition of ‘essential services’ as ‘those for which the interruption would endanger the life, personal safety or health of the whole or part of the population’.
How much of a hurdle are these thresholds?
Well, we will have to wait to see the true impact, but it is fair to say that whilst the Act makes it harder for Unions to achieve the required mandate for strike action, it will not rule out future strike action within public services. For example, both recent strikes on the Tube and Southern Rail network easily met both thresholds!