Industrial action legislation unfair on employers, says think tank

The rules governing industrial action need to be overhauled because the balance of power has shifted too far in favour of trade unions, a think tank has warned.

A report launched by Policy Exchange ahead of this week’s TUC Conference – which will hear calls for coordinated action against austerity cuts – argues that the legal balance between trade unions, union members and employers no longer reflects the realities of low union membership in most sectors.

A strike can go ahead with complete legitimacy with only a small minority of the trade union members – and an extreme minority of the actual labour force – voting in favour of it, the report says, pointing to the British Airways dispute where only 31% of unionised staff actually voted to reject BA’s pay offer.

Policy Exchange is calling for new legislation requiring that a majority of employees in the balloted workplace vote, and/or that a minimum of 40% of the trade unionised workforce vote in favour of strike action, in addition to a majority of the votes cast.

It also says that employers should be permitted to use agency staff to carry out the duties that striking employees would otherwise have performed, undoing restrictions introduced in 2004. Additionally, the Government should reduce the period of protection from unfair dismissal during a strike, for example from 12 weeks back to eight weeks.

Andrew Lilico, chief economist at Policy Exchange and co-author of the report, said: “The existing framework for industrial relations is out of kilter with the realities of the makeup of the modern workforce and the relationship between employers and employees.

“There are some specific reforms that should be made with regards to rebalancing the power between trade unions, workers and employers. Particularly important ones include requiring that ballots identify a specific grievance and authorise a particular set of industrial action allowing more use of agency staff, and investigating whether unions are monopolies in respect of their provision of services to workers.”

The report was welcomed by employers’ body the CBI, but Sarah Veale, head of equalities and employment rights at the TUC, dismissed it as “a crude attack on basic workplace rights and a charter for bad bosses everywhere”.

“What these right-wing policy wonks in their nostalgia for the divisive years of Mrs Thatcher don’t understand is that unions do not just benefit their members, but employers and wider society too,” she said.

“If they got out a bit more they would find that unions give employees a voice, deal with problems before they turn into disputes or end up in tribunals, and allow change to be negotiated.”

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