الخميس , مايو 20 2021

Ministers unveil strike laws reform

NHS health workers on the picket line

Legislation designed to toughen up the laws on strike action is to be unveiled by the government later.

The Trades Union Bill proposes minimum turnouts in strike ballots, time limits on mandates for industrial action and changes to political levies.

The government says this will balance the right to strike with the rights of working people and businesses.

However, unions have criticised the move, saying the changes will make legal strikes close to impossible.

The bill gets its first reading later – its official introduction to Parliament – and will not be debated at this stage.

Minimum turnout

The Conservatives made a manifesto commitment to reform UK strike laws, with legislation announced in the post-election Queen’s Speech in May.

The party had wanted to introduce the reforms during the coalition government but the move was blocked by the Liberal Democrats.

A strike can take place under the current law if it is backed by a simple majority of the union members voting, regardless of turnout.

Under the bill, a strike affecting “core” public services – such as health, transport, fire services or schools – would need the support of 40% of eligible union members to go ahead.

There would also be a minimum 50% turnout for strike ballots to be valid, and time limits on a mandate for industrial action following a ballot.

Other measures are likely to see the removal of current restrictions on using agency workers to cover for strikers, and efforts to tackle “intimidation” of non-striking workers.

In numbers


Public sector workers went on strike over pensions and pay in July last year

  • There are 149 registered trade unions. These range from large unions which protect the interests of broad groups of workers, such as public services union Unison and the GMB union for general workers, to smaller bodies, including the Rugby Players’ Association and the North of England Zoological Society Staff Association
  • Unite is Britain’s biggest trade union, with 1.4m members
  • There are 25 trade unions that have “political funds” to help them further their broader objectives, according to the Trade Union Certification Officer
  • Unions must put the continuation of political funds to a vote by members every 10 years
  • Fifteen trade unions with political funds are affiliated to the Labour Party and give it substantial sums of money. Unions not affiliated to Labour can give money to any political party they want.
  • In 2014, 788,000 working days were lost in the UK by people who did not work as a result of their involvement in a dispute at their workplace, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics
  • Strikes are at historically low levels. 2011 saw large protests over public sector pensions, leading to 1.4m working days lost through labour disputes – the highest number since 1990. However, more working days were lost to labour disputes in 1926 than in the 37 years combined between 1974 – 2011, as the House of Commons Library points out

Business Secretary Sajid Javid said: “Trade unions have a constructive role to play in representing their members’ interests but our one nation government will balance their rights with those of working people and business.

“These changes are being introduced so that strikes only happen when a clear majority of those entitled to vote have done so and all other possibilities have been explored.”

Also under the changes, union members will have to “opt in” if they want to pay a political levy as part of their fees, rather than having to opt out, which will hit Labour funding.

Acting Labour leader Harriet Harman has said changes to party funding “must be on a fair, cross-party basis, not just rigged in favour of the Tory party”.

‘Ready to fight’

The government’s proposals have been criticised by unions, with TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady saying the bill “is a slippery slope towards worse rights for all”.

Ms O’Grady said the changes would enable employers to “stick two fingers up” to workers by bringing in agency staff to break any strikes.

Mick Whelan, general secretary of the train drivers’ union Aslef, said the move “smacks of Germany in the 1930s” and accused the government of trying to “neuter the unions”.


A 24-hour tube strike earlier this month caused chaos for thousands of London commuters

Meanwhile, Unite – UK’s biggest trade union – has deleted the words “so far as may be lawful” from its constitution.

General secretary Len McCluskey said: “Unite is not going to see itself rendered toothless by passively submitting to unjust laws. If the Tories wish to put trade unionism beyond the law, then they must take the consequences.

“We are ready for the fight, and we will, I believe, find allies throughout society, amongst everyone who cares for freedom and democracy.”

Endorsing the introduction of strike ballot thresholds, CBI director general Katja Hall said it was “an important, but fair, step to ensure that strikes have the clear support of the workforce”.

Dr Adam Marshall, policy and external affairs executive director at the British Chambers of Commerce, said the right to strike “must be exercised with the greatest restraint”.

“Businesses will see this as a sensible piece of legislation that carefully balances the rights of those wishing to withhold their labour, against the rights of those who rely on access to essential services,” he said.

Consultations on the 40% strike ballot threshold for key public sectors, picketing rules, and use of agency workers will be open until September.

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