UK: Trade Union Reform: Some Key Thoughts

Last Updated: 30 October 2015
Article by Chris Holme and Emily Knight

Everyone on the employer side interested in trade union reform is now well versed in relation to the changes that the Government is currently proposing.

Most interest from employers centres on the reforms dealing with:

  • The removal of the ban on using agency workers during industrial action
  • The end to the indefinite use of ballots to legalise industrial action – and capping the use of a successful ballot at four months
  • The increase in notice of industrial action to two weeks (to allow further negotiation and preparation time)
  • The toughening of voting requirements to pass a ballot (50% turnout AND 50% of those who vote in favour outside "important public services")

We have discussed these proposals widely with people on all sides of the debate.  These discussions have provided real food for thought.  In no particular order:

  • The removal of the ban on using agency workers may have limited use for employers in covering highly skilled roles, although it will be very useful in covering lower skilled roles.  However, may there be a negative impact on industrial relations in circumstances whereby agency workers are used to mitigate the effect of industrial action?  This will be something for companies to weigh up in terms of their overall industrial relations strategy.  May the use (or potential use) of agency workers to assist during industrial action also have a knock-on effect on any agreement to use agency workers during the normal course of business?
  • We are used to the efforts made by trade unions to secure the votes they need during the current balloting process.  We are also used to a successful ballot not automatically meaning a strike (in many cases no industrial action ensues).  Instead it is used as a bargaining chip in an ongoing negotiation process.  But will the new balloting rules change this balance?  Certainly we can expect the efforts by the unions during the balloting process to be increased – seeking to secure both a good turnout AND a majority of that higher (in many cases) turnout in favour.  Will this create more of an "unstoppable" momentum towards industrial action?  Will we actually see more strike action following a successful ballot as a result?  We don't know, but it is possible.
  • The four month time limit may also lead to a "crunch" point at which a union seeks to "use" the ballot or lose it.  This may intensify a dispute or lead to strike action which otherwise may not have taken place.
  • Finally, the increase to two weeks' notice of industrial action will be welcomed by employers, but will the increased ability of employers to deal with industrial action precipitate the potential for unlawful wildcat action?  Certain unions are already speaking of this – more broadly as a result of the new proposals (although it is very important to note that many unions are not).

It is likely that the proposals are welcomed by employers.  They go some way to redressing what employers have seen as the problems around the industrial action process which they have grown used to over recent history.  However, the potential negatives should not be ignored, and should be factored into industrial relations strategies by employers.  These strategies should, in our view, seek to retain a focus on maintaining good industrial relations and communication tactics to avoid disputes occurring – but when they do (as may be inevitable from time to time) – facilitating routes of communication both directly and indirectly with the union personnel involved.

If you would like to discuss any of the issues outlined above, please do not hesitate to contact either  Chris or  Emily.

We will be holding our next Trade Union forum in Spring 2016 and will look to focus on improving relations with unions – both when disputes are developing, and at the ACAS stage – so as to seek to avoid industrial action actually taking place.  If some of the concerns raised in our summary are correct, looking at methods to de-escalate a dispute through improved relations / communication will, we believe, be extremely useful.  We hope to have two guest speakers, one from the Employer side, and one from ACAS.

If you would like to hear about future Trade Union events and updates, please email your details to Bianca Bacchus.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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