Trade Union Bill update: striking the balance | EEF

Trade Union Bill update: striking the balance

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The UK Government may be positioning itself to ban strikes on the railways with full public support as the Southern rail dispute drags on with no end in sight and heavy damage to commuters across the southeast. This has echoes of the miners’ strike where the unions have never recovered their former power because of the blunt use of strike action without regard for damage inflicted on the public.

The government promised to undertake a series of measures to change the landscape relating to industrial action – subsequently the Trade Union Act received Royal Assent in May 2016. The law is set, the only thing missing was the implementation date. So, where are we up to?

A reminder- what the law will change

The key elements of the legislation can be found here. Briefly, the main points are

  • All ballots for industrial action are only valid if 50% of those invited to vote do so
  • Notification of industrial action will be 14 days- or 7 if agreed
  • The ballot is valid only for 6 months- or 9 months if agreed
  • The possibility of electronic balloting to be considered
  • A number of measures to tackle intimidation of those willing to work and controls for picket lines
  • In certain prescribed sectors, there is an additional requirement that 40% of those entitled to vote must vote in favour of the action


So, when?

The new legislation requires substantial re-writing of the relevant codes of practice and guidance. As the code relating to picketing is to become binding, the government decided that implementation without these updates may be unworkable. It appears that the government has other things on its mind right now, but progress is being made and the EEF is playing an important role in setting out how things will work in practice through active conversations with the government.

So, when?

We don’t have an official answer as yet, I am afraid, but we think around the turn of the year may be most likely at present. We will keep you posted.

Whatever happened to the agency worker change?

In its manifesto, the Conservative party promised to end the “nonsense” by which employers cannot use agency labour to cover industrial action. A consultation period was launched last July, and responses from the ministry were due last October. This has not been seen since, and we are not aware of any immediate plans for this to be addressed. So, for now at least, it’s “as you were”….

So, what does it mean?

The Act may set a more rigid framework for industrial action, but it doesn’t eliminate it as an option. Unions will adapt to the new environment. Employers should too. The new law may make the whole industrial dispute process more formal and more rigid. Employers should be mindful that unions may feel they have to adopt certain strategies and tactics earlier than they would otherwise.

The Act may set a more rigid framework for industrial action, but it doesn’t eliminate it as an option.

For example, I suspect unions will feel obliged to offer all potential industrial action options on the ballot paper. The time restrictions may mean that it becomes less easy for a union official to delay the beginning of action, and the more litigious framework may reduce scope for the unions to be flexible as the dispute develops. And, of course, the introduction of thresholds will result in increased union activity up to and during the ballot.

So, what do we need to do and when?

Employers should keep an eye out for our email alerts when the new codes are published, and of course, that all important implementation date. We will be looking to roll out some practical workshops at that time.

If you find yourselves in the unfortunate situation of a dispute escalation, speak to your EEF adviser our national team will be happy to assist in any way we can.

We need to maintain our relationships with the unions. The legislation is not a silver bullet to end disputes, and history suggests that litigation and legislation are not the answer. They certainly aren’t in industrial relations, and our advice is to continue to forge meaningful relationships based on mutual trust and interests. In a post-Brexit world, our aims are more alike than they are different. Keep talking!

To find out how our Employee Relations experts can support your business, speak to your EEF advisor, call 0808 168 5874 or email


National Head of Employee Relations

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