The new Conservative Government is preparing to usher in trade union reforms, focusing specifically on tightening the rules on industrial action. This short summary note sets out the key changes proposed. We will keep you updated on how these proposals develop and the timeframe for any implementation.

As millions of commuters prepare for widespread delays following the RMT’s announcement this week that Network Rail union members have voted in favour of strike action, the new Secretary of State for BIS, Sajid Javid, has announced that the Government will prioritise its plans to tighten rules on industrial action.  The Government aims to prevent what they described in their party manifesto as “disruptive and undemocratic strike action” by introducing the following reforms:

  • A higher “turn-out threshold” of 50% for strike ballots; with an even tougher threshold in the health, transport, fire and education sectors which would mean public sector workers would be unable to go on strike without the support of 40% of those entitled to participate in the ballot and 50% of all those who actually turn out to vote;
  • repealing the restrictions which ban employers from hiring agency workers to cover striking employees;
  • introducing a time limit on the mandate of each ballot to ensure strike action cannot be called on the basis of ballots “conducted years before”. The manifesto does not specify a proposed time limit;
  • tackling the intimidation of non-striking workers;
  • introducing legislation to ensure a transparent opt-in for union subscriptions by trade unions;
  • tightening the rules around “facility time” for union representatives; and
  • reforming the role of the Certification Officer.

Previously, the Conservatives had proposed additional reforms, which included making the current Code of Practice on picketing legally binding and requiring unions to give employers 14 days’ notice of strike action (rather than the current seven days).  However, these were not specifically mentioned in the manifesto.

The proposals may well be welcome news for employers, particularly because tougher thresholds would essentially make lawful strike action harder to achieve and repealing the restrictions on hiring agency workers would reduce disruption to businesses when strike action does take place, but it remains to be seen what the reforms will look like in practice and how and when they will be implemented.

However, the move, which comes during the week that the Prime Minister described the Conservatives as “the real party of working people”, is likely to infuriate the trade unions and given the timing, will undoubtedly intensify the current negotiations between the unions and Network Rail.  It also seems likely that the unions will change their strategies to fight against any reforms that restrict the right to strike, as demonstrated by the reports that Unite are threatening to remove the requirement in their constitution for strikes to be lawful.

The changes are expected to be announced in the Queen’s Speech later this month and will apparently be part of one of the first bills brought forward by the Government.