The reforms made within the Trade Union Bill will strengthen strike laws by introducing a 50 per cent threshold for ballot turnout and an additional threshold of 40 per cent of support to take industrial action from all members eligible to vote across the health, education, transport, energy, border security and fire sectors. This includes the Border Force and nuclear decommissioning.
The government said this would make sure that strikes are the definitive result of a “clear and positive democratic mandate from union members”, allowing the right to strike to continue, but attempting to reduce disruption to millions of people.
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.”
The bill also aims to create greater transparency and improve union practices by setting a four-month time limit for industrial action so that mandates are always recent as well as requiring a clear description of the trade dispute and the planned industrial action on the ballot paper so that all union members are clear about what they’re voting for.
There will also be greater scrutiny and controls over taxpayer-funded subsidies to trade unions – “facility time” – such as full-time trade union representatives. The government has outlined the creation of a “transparent process” for trade union subscriptions that will allow members to make an active choice of paying into political funds – following in the footsteps of Northern Ireland – to “protect union members from misleading marketing practices”.
This means all unions – not just those affiliated with Labour – will have to ask each member whether they wish to pay the political levy and repeat the question every five years. This is currently a key source of funding for Labour and the £25m annual political fund income from 4.5m political levy payers contributes significantly to political campaigning across the parties.
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Paul Kenny, the GMB general secretary, said this development made clear that “the Tory party high command intend to make the Labour party bankrupt by cutting off the main source of funding that they have relied on since the 1930s”.
Safeguards will be put in place to ensure non-striking members of a workforce are still able to go about their business without “fear of intimidation”.
Javid added that the changes were being enforced so that “strikes only happen when a clear majority of those entitled to vote have done so and all other possibilities have been explored”.
In the year up to April 2015, 704,000 working days were lost due to strikes.
The announcement was met with an immediate backlash from trade unions. Dave Prentis, general secretary of public services union Unison called the proposals “spiteful” and overlooked that “strikes are rare”, while the decision to lose a day’s pay “is never an easy one – especially for public sector workers who have suffered many years of pay restraint”.
Kenny said: “When workers jump through draconian hurdles for their vote for strike action to be lawful, the employers can then ignore the will of their own workers.” He said that as workers have to give employers notice of strike action 14 days in advance, “that is more than enough time for employers to legally hire another workforce to break the strike”.
Meanwhile, the TUC claimed the bill was an “unnecessary attack on workers’ rights and civil liberties that will shift the balance of power in the workplace”. The general secretary Frances O’Grady added that “making it a criminal offence for seven people to be on a picket line is a waste of police time and not something you would expect in a country with a proud tradition of liberty”.
Employers’ groups were more positive about the changes – the CBI called the introduction of thresholds an “important but fair step” and mentioned that placing time limits on ballot mandates is an important measure to “ensure industrial action is limited to the original dispute and not extended to other matters”.
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