Fearing a surge in trade union anger over massive public sector spending cuts, UK employers’ body the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) is pushing for an increase in the number of votes needed from balloted union members for industrial action, so that businesses are less disrupted by strikes.
In its latest report, Keeping the wheels turning: modernising the legal framework of industrial relations, the CBI says the threshold for industrial action should be raised so that strikes can only go ahead if 40 percent of balloted members vote – and that a majority of them vote in favour of action. Currently, strikes can go ahead provided a majority of those voting support it.
The body also wants companies to be able to recruit agency staff to provide cover for striking workers. As the law stands, companies can recruit temporary staff directly, but not through an agency.
Other proposals focus on making sure unions keep up-to-date membership records and that illegal wildcat strikes are prevented. The CBI also wants the notice period for industrial action to increase from seven to 14 days after the ballot, so businesses have more time to prepare.
The CBI says the law needs updating to reflect the fact that 85 percent of private sector employees are not members of a union, and that most employers engage directly with staff or their representatives to bring about changes in the workplace.
The UK’s major unions have already condemned the proposals and lawyers believe that even though the government may be sympathetic, this could be difficult legislation to pass.
“The government might be reluctant to embark on a programme of anti-union legislation that harks back to the 1980s,” says David von Hagen, employment law partner at solicitors Winckworth Sherwood.
Lawyers add that – if these proposals should be turned into law – union leaders may have a strong case to have them over-ruled.
Will Burrows, head of employment law at solicitors Canter Levin & Berg, says: “They could be seen to contravene Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as they may deny or hinder the right of association.”
A bargaining tool
Eilidh Wiseman, head of employment at law firm Dundas & Wilson, says that unions should not oppose the 40 percent threshold outright, but use it as a bargaining tool. In return for the threshold, she says, they could negotiate to have the balloting requirements simplified.
“Ultimately, this sort of legislative compromise may be the best result for employees and employers,” she says.
Daniel Ornstein, partner in the labour and employment law department at Proskauer Rose, also believes that changing the balloting rules should be welcomed by unions.
“Having a higher number of members voting in favour of industrial action should result in strikes having a broader base of support among the workforce and more certainty for those that do wish to take action that the strike will proceed,” he says. “This would result in a reduction in protracted legal disputes.”
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