Strikes Bill UK: Striking the Right Legal Balance


Industrial actions over the past months have highlighted the difficulties for both organisations and individuals in the wake of the pandemic, energy and cost-of-living crisis. As a response to the resulting disruption caused to our public services, the UK government has recently published the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill. But is the Strikes Bill going to help or hinder the ongoing process?

While we wait to see what actually emerges from the Strikes Bill after parliamentary scrutiny, it definitely raises questions with regard to implementation and the way forward for unions, employees and employers alike.

Minimum Service Levels

Firstly, who is going to decide the ‘minimum service levels’ that need to be provided?  

  • Will this vary from industry to industry; or will it be a standard percentage figure – say, to pluck a figure from the air, 20%? If so, would that, for example, be 20% of all scheduled health service appointments going ahead on that particular day, or 20% in each category of illness?
  • Who, in the health service, for example, is going to be responsible for deciding which 20% of appointments, say in oncology, should go ahead? 
  • And how would local/regional train services be weighted against long-distance ones? Would they each have their own 20% targets or would it be 20% of all rail services across the board? And what if someone decides that, actually, on this particular regional rail service, a minimum level of service to passengers actually requires an increase in the number of services that ordinarily run? 
  • And who, to put it finely, is going to pay for all this additional level of bureaucracy?

Re-establishing a Working Relationship

It would be a mistake to think unions take industrial action lightly. Running a legal ballot is an expensive business, and the cost and inconvenience for people striking are not inconsiderable. If nothing else, each day on strike costs them around 0.5% of their annual income, and impacts on pensions etc. 

What must also be remembered is that, after any and every bout of industrial action, strikers and employers have to get back around the table and negotiate an end to the dispute. And, given that they’ll have to negotiate again next year, they need to consider re-establishing their working relationship. 

Legal barriers to strike action are likely to make getting back to work a much more fraught process. Workers are likely to have been frustrated in exercising their legitimate aims and rights, otherwise they wouldn’t have supported the action. Meanwhile, the potential for ‘finger pointing’ has, as a result, been increased. Moves along the lines indicated will almost certainly draw legal challenges over various aspects, not least in relation to the human (and other) rights of those who would no longer be allowed to withdraw their labour. No one wins in either of those scenarios.

Recognising the Need for Change

Furthermore, effective industrial relations – where industrial action is a breakdown in normal relations and a combative approach will inevitably lead to another dispute – stem from the free flow of information within the workplace. And from consultation and negotiation over what that information points to, including recognising the need for change.

Those normal processes need to be reinstated. In some cases, that takes time. In others, it takes superhuman effort. More laws restricting lawful strike action can only make re-establishing these key relationships more difficult.

Ultimately, as much as we might be inconvenienced by strike action, it is primarily a symptom. We’re all much more inconvenienced by ongoing poor industrial relations, by poor negotiation skills and/or ineffective collective bargaining culture. Although, of course, these are all far less visible. 

So, it’s important to keep in mind that good industrial relations are about dialogue, respectful disagreement and collective problem-solving. Any law that is to be effective in helping the process rather than hindering it would have to be careful not to see industrial relations as inevitably combative. Or take a superficial view of workplace problems which lead to industrial action. Otherwise, it seems only likely to increase the amount of poor industrial relations that we experience.

We’d be interested to know your thoughts on this, so please leave a comment. And if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly, please contact us or give Malcolm a call on 07736 068787.



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