15 Jul 2015

Trade Union Bill: how new laws will impact strikes

The government has published its Trade Union Bill today outlining the new laws on strike ballots and political donations.

This comes after a last week’s travel chaos following strikes on London Underground and some train routes.

The new bill aims to clampdown on union members causing major disruption to public services and now requires a 50 per cent turnout in strike ballots and 40 per cent of support in disputes in health, education, fire, boarder security, energy and transport.

Getting a pay rise or defending terms and conditions will become far harder for working people
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady

The Trade Union Bill is described as the biggest assault on the unions since the 1980s, which the TUC claim is an “attack on workers’ rights’” but ministers insist it’s fair.

What’s in the bill?

Under the Trade Union Bill, a 50 per cent turnout of union members will be needed to go ahead with strike ballots.

This aims to ensure that any action has a democratic mandate, but unions argue it will become much harder for working people to dispute their employers on the picket line and defend their rights.

In addition to the 50 per cent turnout rule, the strike must be backed by 40 per cent of those eligible to vote.

This 40 per cent threshold applies to key public services such as health, transport and education. Currently there is no minimum threshold for turn out and ballots only require simple majority to back action.

Under the new package, union members would have to actively “opt in” into political levies, meaning they get a choice on whether they pay into a political fund. A large amount of processed are currently paid to the Labour party as the unions are their biggest backers. Currently members are automatically signed up to pay unless they opt-out.

Our one nation government will balance their rights with those of working people and business
Business Secretary Sajid Javid

Plans also include a four month time limit for taking industrial action after a ballot. This comes in response to a national teacher’s strike in 2014 that relied on two-year-old ballot with a turnout of 27 per cent.

There will be new restrictions on picketing which will make it a criminal offence to have seven people on a picket line. Unions are calling it an attack on civil liberties and a waste of police time, but tackles ‘intimidation’ for non-striking workers.

It will also be made an offence not to have a named individual supervising a picket line.

The new laws would also force unions to give employers 14 days notice of strike action and allow them to bring in agency staff to cover for striking workers.

‘Attack on workers’ rights’

Union leaders have reacted with anger to the new legislation with one claiming that it ‘smacks of Germany in the 1930s’.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said the bill is “an unnecessary attack on workers’ rights and civil liberties that will shift the balance of power in the workplace.

“Getting a pay rise or defending terms and conditions will become far harder for working people. Even when ballots meet the government’s new thresholds, employers will soon be able to break strikes by bringing in agency workers.

“If ministers were really interested in improving workplace democracy they would commit to online balloting. However, they would rather silence protests against their cuts to children’s centres, libraries and social care services.

Striking the right balance

But ministers claim the new rules ‘balance the rights of working people and business’.

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.”

Employment Minister Nick Boles beleives that the government is acting in the interest of people who use public services.

The legislation is also backed by employers who welcome the new turnout threshold.

Katja Hall, CBI deputy director-general, said: ”The introduction of thresholds is an important, but fair, step to ensure that strikes have the clear support of the workforce.
“We welcome the consultation on modernising picketing rules.

“Intimidation or harassment of individuals is never acceptable – and we want to see the current Code of Practice put on a statutory footing and penalties increased to drive out bad behaviour.”

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