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Going underground

The announcement on 11 August by 3 trade unions representing tube workers that they will strike on Tuesday 25 and Thursday 27 August - staging 24 hour walkouts starting at 18.30 on each day, is no The announcement on 11 August by 3 trade unions representing tube workers that they will strike on Tuesday 25 and Thursday 27 August - staging 24 hour walkouts starting at 18.30 on each day, is no surprise. Equally predictably this continuing and disruptive industrial action helps to sustain the political momentum behind and support for the government's Trade Union Bill.

The Bill, published on 15 July and currently the subject of consultation (open until 9 September 2015), proposes a number of changes to the law affecting trade unions including:

  • Ballot thresholds of 50% of all those entitled to vote, and an overall 40% of those eligible required to be in favour for workers engaged in "important public services";

  • More detail required on the ballot paper about the matters in dispute and the periods when industrial action is likely to take place;

  • More information about the ballot result has to be given by the trade union;

  • Notice of industrial action to increase from 7 to 14 days;

  • Industrial action must be validated by a vote that is no more than 4 months old, otherwise a further ballot is required;

  • Where trade unions hold a picket they must appoint (in writing) a supervisor.

It's interesting to note that one of the sticking points in the London Tube dispute is the unwillingness of trade unions to put certain offers made by London Underground to their members. This unwillingness clearly causes frustration for London Underground, given that resolution of the dispute may be delayed or even not achieved because of, in its view, over-reaching or overly political stances taken by the unions. Such frustration may be met in part by the proposal that re-balloting of members must take place if further industrial action is to be called more than 4 months after the last ballot. This is in part an attempt to ensure that the stance of union representatives remains reflective of the employees' actual position, but it is also about focusing minds within the suggested time frame. Having said that, in the Tube dispute the train drivers union ASLEF voted in mid-June in favour of strike action. Even with the Bill's 4 month proposed shelf life for industrial action after a ballot, further action could be taken up until the middle of October before any re-ballot would be necessary.

What is more, while the re-balloting requirement may increase union costs in long-running disputes, there is a real risk of a potentially counter-productive outcome. Employers may, in fact, delay tabling their best offer for settlement of a dispute until close to the end of the 4 month period, in the hope that the imminent cost and risk attached to running a further ballot will make the offer that much more persuasive. It may also be a slightly less generous offer than it might otherwise have been, increasing the risk that the industrial action will continue.

With the Bill likely to be enacted before the end of 2015, as in the run up to the Miners' strike in the 1980s, it might seem that the government is taking the opportunity to improve its position and those of public sector employers, as it hunkers down for industrial action - connected to George Osborne's continuing austerity measures and planned further spending cuts for government departments. However, leaving aside the issue of whether such preventative action is a legitimate aim, it is certainly an open question as to whether or not the proposals in the Bill will advance the government's position. Even under the new threshold proposals the London Underground strike action would still be taking place. If enacted the Bill will not be an end to public sector disruption, and as with any one-sided initiative, there is a real prospect that it will harden positions on both.