Following the calling off by the RMT of the rail strikes planned for June 4 and 9, now seems a good time to examine the proposed introduction of more restrictive strike laws. The proposals involve the introduction of a 50% turnout requirement for a ballot on industrial action to be quorate, and a further requirement for “essential public services” that 40% of those entitled to vote must vote in favour in order for the action to be legitimate. A time limit on ballot validity is also proposed.

It is difficult to find statistics on the number of strikes that would have been affected by these measures – the Office for National Statistics only collects information on the number of strikes that have occurred and the number of days lost to strikes – but one possible unintended consequence of this legislation may be greater turnout by union members and thus a greater mandate for strike action. Unions rarely call ballots that they are not sure that they will win, and members often know that they do not need to vote in order for the ballot to pass. If abstention is no longer sufficient, the key question will be how many people this will galvanise into action. 

The new turnout threshold also raises another prospect: that those who are opposed to industrial action are in some circumstances better served by not voting at all than by voting no. Critics of the proposals say that they are out of kilter with the strike laws in much of Europe, and that it can’t be right to encourage people not to participate in a ballot.

The number of working days lost to strikes has been highly variable over the last 20 years, with 2011 the highest year since 1994, and 2012 the lowest since 1997. However, there is a consistent downward trend in the number of strikes, with an average of 117 per year in 2009-2013, compared to 213 per year in 1994-1998. This points to strikes being longer and larger now than previously. By preventing strike action until workers have come to see a situation as totally intolerable, the new laws may exaggerate this trend towards fewer, more intense, strikes.

Finally, it is notable that wildcat, unauthorised strikes are on the increase. Employers might expect to see workers who feel that the new rules are unfair or unduly restrictive simply ignore them and strike regardless. This would be the opposite of the intended effect of the legislation, as rather than protecting employers from strikes the result could be industrial action being taken without any notification or prior warning. Employers may find comfort in the news that the ban on the use of agency staff when strike action takes place will be lifted.

The effect of the new laws, should they pass, is still far from clear, and as with most legislation is unlikely to be fully understood until some time after its introduction, but the impact on industrial relations could be deep and lasting.

Posted on 05/06/2015 in Legal Updates

Back to Knowledge