What are the laws surrounding strikes?

With UK strike action on the rise, our experts explore employees right to strike and how the Government plan to limit public disruption to services.

02 June 2023

Understanding industrial action

Industrial action is dominating the news recently, with ongoing strikes taking place within the transport sector, education and the health sector, and now Manchester’s Metrolink has recently announced their intention to strike after a breakdown in pay negotiations. With dates continually being announced with industrial action, our employment law experts look at the laws surrounding strikes and what it means for those affected.

All employees have the right to strike as a form of industrial action, provided certain legal requirements are met, and it applies to those who are both trade union members and non-members. To lawfully call for a strike, a trade union must be recognised by the employer.

What if a union isn't recognised?

If a union isn’t recognised, its members may still take individual industrial action over a dispute, such as the terms and conditions of your employment. Provided that all legal requirements are met, such as a successful ballot and a minimum of seven-day notice period to the employer.

When taking part in a lawful strike, it usually grants workers immunity from any legal action. However, if you are dismissed, you can claim unfair dismissal at an employment tribunal.

Amid a wave of industrial action across the public sector as workers seek pay increases in the face of the rising cost of living, with employees at Manchester’s Metrolink announcing a strike across one of the city's busiest weekends, and train strikes still taking place, the government are potentially looking at introducing a The Strikes (Minimum Service) Bill.

What is the bill?

The new strikes bill seeks to look at introducing minimum service levels for health, education, fire and rescue, decommissioning of nuclear waste, border security as well as transport services. If a strike is called, it will be for the employers to set the numbers of staff required to be on duty via a work notice. This is to be dictated and not negotiated. In short, a list will be drawn up of those permitted to strike and those who are not. Unions and workers would have to comply with these or face losing protections against being sued or dismissed.

The Government has said that this legislation is necessary to protect the lives and livelihoods of the public and have said that the proposed legislation was similar to existing laws in other modern European economies and that it was not designed to ban strikes.

What have the unions said?

The unions have criticised this new bill, “undemocratic, unworkable and illegal,” and they have threatened legal action if the bill is passed. Labour has said they would repeal it if they win the next general election.

The head of Trade union Congress has commented that if it becomes law the legislation would “prolong disputes and poison industrial relations leading to more frequent strikes. This legislation would mean that when workers democratically vote to strike, they can be forced to work and sacked if they don’t comply”.

What does this mean going forward?

If passed, this legislation would significantly curtail employees “right to strike” in an industrial dispute. Depending on the extent which may be determined as a minimum level of cover to provide public safety, this law if complied with, would seriously undermine the effectiveness/purpose of a public sector strike.

If public sector employers were to rely on the proposed legislation and the unions fail to comply, it would follow that they (the TU) would be exposed to a risk of an injunction to declare the strike unlawful, with possible damages awarded against them.

How we can help

If employees have been served with Notices to Work under the proposed Act, and have failed to comply, then disciplinary steps could follow.

If you're unsure about your employee rights, our specialist employment team are on hand to offer expert legal advice. For more information, contact us online here or call 0330 041 5869.

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