Industrial action & the London Tube Strikes: reforming public transport strike law?
In light of the on-going disruptions to rail networks, particularly in the London Tube Network, it is of interest to examine the relevant law on union strike action.
Under current law, a strike or other industrial action will be unlawful unless the union has carried out a postal ballot and a simple majority (over 50%) of the votes cast are in favour. The government has been under pressure over this matter, including by public petition to Parliament, and the London Mayor Boris Johnson. As part of its General Election manifesto, the Conservative Party vowed to introduce measures to "restore confidence" in trade unions, particularly measures which would prevent what it saw as "disruptive and undemocratic" strike action.
The Trade Union Bill 2015-16
On 15 July 2015, the government published the Trade Union Bill 2015-16 to reform aspects of the law relating to industrial action, and trade union obligations and activities. The proposed reforms include increasing ballot thresholds, extending the notice of industrial action required to be given to employers and a new expiry date for action to be taken following a ballot.
The Bill proposes an amendment to introduce an additional requirement that at least 50% of all eligible members must have voted. Moreover, Paragraph 3 Schedule 4 of the Bill introduces a definition of "voting", so that the number of people voting includes those who return spoiled or otherwise invalid ballot papers. This, in effect, will make it harder for unions to pass the threshold of 50%.
The Bill also proposes a further additional threshold for workers in certain "important public services", who will only be able to take industrial action where 40% of eligible members have voted in favour. The UK Transport Services fall within the category of an important public service.
Employer organisations have welcomed the reforms - in particular the proposed new balloting thresholds, which the Confederation of British Industry says are "an important, but fair, step to ensure that strikes have the clear support of the workforce". Unions have predictably condemned the proposals as draconian and an "ideologically-driven attack on unions and workers". They have also criticised the government for failing to engage with calls to allow electronic voting in industrial action ballots, which they argue would have the effect of increasing voter turnout and helping unions achieve the level of democratic mandate that the government lacks itself.
Public transport services are a particularly contentious area for debate because they form an integral part of the infrastructure of the economy. There may be a way to reach a compromise in the dispute. For instance, replacing public transport strikes with mediation will protect workers' rights, while making sure hard-working people do not suffer from travel chaos and loss of pay. In addition, public transport strikes could be replaced with the right to "binding pendulum arbitration" - where an independent judge chooses between the positions of the union and the employer. This will encourage unions to make reasonable demands and help secure moderate outcomes for both sides, ultimately protecting hard-working people.
In recent years it has seemed that trade unions and their members have been increasingly likely to resort to industrial action. While employers might put this down to increasing militancy, the unions have perceived a greater tendency among some employers to impose change quickly and with little consultation. Since 2005, London has seen more than 30 Tube strikes with reasons including calls for a shorter working week and triple pay on Boxing Day. The latest bout of disputes is over the proposed 24-hour tube services on weekends, which was due to be launched on 12 September 2015. This is part of a modernisation of London, and is a move towards greater investment and commerce, as well as helping tourists and late-night revellers to return home safely and reliably. Research shows that one day of Tube strikes costs the City's economy around £48 million, reflecting costs to businesses and the many hard-working people for whom a tube strike means a day of no pay.
Regardless of the method used, it is indeed time that the government reforms strike laws for Tube employees and other public transport workers across the UK.
For more information, contact Louise Holder.