New UK laws designed to reduce strikes may have opposite effect

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The proposed UK Government reforms to trade union laws, designed to reduce the ability of unions to call their members out on strike, is likely to result in the exact opposite.

Jim Wright, partner and Employment solicitor with leading corporate law firm Shulmans LLP, explained that current laws derive from an Act of Parliament passed in 1992; the Trade Union & Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act. Since that point the High Court has interpreted that Act several times, but crucially, it remains one drafted in the very early 90s and thus reflects that era.

Jim said:

This was a time before the internet, as we know it today, existed. The law has not moved on, particularly on the key issue of electronic voting.

The proposed reform is an attempt to reduce the ability of unions to cause issues for employers by reducing the ability of a union to call its membership out on strike. There is also the challenge to union funding of the Labour party, but the primary stated aim was to “protect” (in the words of the Conservative 2015 Manifesto) the public and employers from strike action. In essence, it’s been drawn up in an attempt to make it less likely for a strike to go ahead. Having examined it in detail, I would say the proposed law could well have the opposite effect.

The Government had not intended to introduce electronic voting, but by placing new laws on industrial action before parliament, the House of Lords looks set to permit unions to ballot for industrial action by using this cheap, quick and hassle free manner.

Employment law expert says proposed reform likely to bring in electronic voting making strike ballots simpler and more accessible

Lord Kerslake, the former Head of the UK Civil Service, crossbench Peer, and President of the Local Government Association, said in reference to the Government’s Trades Union Bill, currently at its second reading in the House of Lords:

The most completely unreasonable requirement is that trades unions will not be able to conduct these ballots electronically. In 2007, when I was chief executive of Sheffield city council, we ran one of the biggest electronic voting pilots. It was not without its challenges, but I came to the very clear conclusion that electronic voting is as least as secure, if not more so, than postal ballots. Since then we have got used to carrying out vastly more of our lives online.

Jim Wright added:

The incongruity is, if this new law had not been proposed it’s unlikely any union would have succeeded in getting electronic voting approved. But the Government’s changes have given a door through which unions can push industrial action regulation into the social media age.

This would give rise to other union advantages; the cost for a union of balloting will dramatically reduce and response levels will undoubtedly rise, as there’s no need to go to the post box as members can vote with the touch of a button.

One solution to the difficulties inherent in holding strike ballots has been for trade unions to move beyond traditional forms of industrial action and onto leverage campaigns whereby rather than industrial action, the union publicly protests and draws attention to the perceived “unfairness” of the issues among the public and other stakeholders. As John Lewis and Kellogg both found out in Liverpool, when employer MMP threatened job cuts, the Unite trade union used MMP’s relationship with its high profile customers to leverage change. Such leverage campaigns need no ballot, cost less than an electronic vote and can be done with no notice. The new law will have no effect on this new union tactic.

Wright said:

I would suggest the Government’s attempt to change a law originating from before Oasis urged us all not to look back in anger has been out-flanked by a trade union movement with a superior understanding of social media and the power of brands in the 21st century.