Are Union Strikes a Right or a Problem That Needs Addressing?

Union strikes involving employees refusing to work can be a contentious issue. Strikes can be either official, where trade unions adhere to legal regulations, or unofficial when unions or employees take action without proper approval. The question then arises: What determines the legality of a strike?


Understanding the Strike Process

In official strikes, employees are protected by the law. Trade union members are typically the primary participants, but other individuals may be legally protected if they strike. Any trade union member requested to participate in a ballot can decide to join an official strike, regardless of how they voted in the poll. Additionally, non-union employees who work for the same employer in the same “bargaining unit” can join an official strike.

To determine if they have the right to strike, uncertain individuals can consult with their employer or the trade union that called for the strike, according to the Advisory, Conciliation, and Arbitration Service (Acas).


The Role of a Ballot in Initiating a Strike

A trade union can only call for industrial action if the majority of its members support it in a properly organized postal vote known as a “ballot.” The union must inform its members and the employer about the specifics of the action, which must be carried out by a union official or committee with the legal authority to do so. The voting paper should indicate who this authorized representative is.

In the UK, approximately 6.5 million people are trade union members, and they may consider voting for industrial action in various sectors, such as train drivers, ambulance workers, 999 call handlers, teachers, and civil servants, who have all gone on strike to demand better pay, protected by trade union legislation.


The Legal Process of a Strike

Unions must give at least seven days’ notice before scheduling any industrial action in the workplace. This notice period was doubled in 2014 when the government introduced rules mandating at least a 50% turnout of union members in deciding on strike action.

A strike initiated by workers without union involvement is called a “wildcat strike.” Only a union can obtain the legal mandate to strike, so any strike undertaken without union permission is considered a violation of employment contracts and does not offer protection against termination.


Legal Measures to Restrict Strike Rights

Recently, a judge ruled that the nurses’ strike had to be shortened by a day after Health Secretary Steve Barclay took legal action against it following a vote by members of the Royal College of Nursing to reject a pay offer. Government ministers and the NHS Employers organization argued that the final day of the strike was illegal because the union’s six-month mandate for industrial action had expired. While there is no specific legal right to strike in UK law, strike activity is considered legal when carried out by a trade union by the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.


Approaching a Summer of Strikes

The UK is experiencing a second summer of unrest, with strikes in the transportation sector and teachers’ strikes leading to school closures. The Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers Union (RMT) has announced three strike action dates in July that coincide with The Open Championship and The Ashes, potentially causing inconvenience for golf and cricket fans.


The European Convention on Human Rights

Under Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, individuals have the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, including forming and joining trade unions to protect their interests. This right can be legally limited to the extent necessary in a democratic society, such as for preserving security, public safety, or crime prevention. However, violent protests are not protected.

Industrial action, including strikes, is considered legal and protected if it adheres to the rules outlined in the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, which should be interpreted in line with Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The 1992 Act applies to England, Wales, and Scotland, with partial application in Northern Ireland. The Act was designed to define and regulate the role of trade unions, including collective bargaining (negotiating employment conditions as a group) and industrial action. It also outlines the rights of trade union members, such as the right to access courts, protection against unjust disciplinary actions, and the ability to terminate union membership.


New Laws Balancing Strike Rights and Public Service Obligations

The new legislation will empower the government to establish minimum service levels during strikes to ensure public safety and access to essential public services. The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill aims to guarantee that critical services like rail, ambulances, and fire services maintain a minimum level of service during industrial action, reducing risks to life and ensuring the public’s ability to commute to work.

The legislation encompasses border security, decommissioning of nuclear installations, management of radioactive waste and spent fuel, health services, education services, fire and rescue services, and transport services. Similar systems for implementing minimum service levels during strikes exist in countries like Spain and Italy. If a union fails to comply with the obligations outlined in the legislation, it may lose its legal protection against damages. These reforms coincide with government ministers meeting trade unions to discuss fair and reasonable public sector pay settlements for 2023-2024.


Different Approaches of the Conservatives, Labour, and Trade Unions

Rishi Sunak’s proposed anti-strike legislation to establish “minimum service levels” in critical public sectors, including the NHS and schools, has drawn intense criticism from unions as the prime minister seeks to address industrial disputes. Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, stated that his party would overturn anti-trade union legislation if they formed the next government, highlighting the apparent differences between Labour and the Conservatives regarding workers’ rights in the upcoming general election.

Sharon Graham, the general secretary of the Unite union, expressed her opposition to the legislation, stating that unions will continue to defend workers regardless of the government’s attempts to undermine them. Starmer also voiced scepticism about the bill’s effectiveness, saying it would likely exacerbate an already challenging situation.

Critics of the Strikes Bill have raised concerns, including the potential for workers to be sacked, the financial burdens imposed on unions, and whether such measures may violate international law. They argue that dissatisfaction cannot be legislated away.

In conclusion, union strikes raise complex issues that require careful consideration. Balancing the rights of workers to collectively bargain and strike with the need to maintain public services and ensure public safety is challenging for legislators and policymakers.

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