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What is happening to the right to strike?
We've heard a lot about strikes in the media this year, as the government passed their Trade Union Act in May. And much of the coverage has portrayed ordinary working people with genuine grievances who dare to demand fair treatment as mischief-makers, bringing businesses to their knees.
The truth is less dramatic. People only ever go on strike as an absolute last resort. Strikes happen where workers feel strongly that they are still being unfairly treated and not listened to – strongly enough to go without pay while on strike, and put themselves through what is often a stressful experience.
Under UK employment law, workers have the right not to be dismissed or suffer detriment for going on strike, providing some pretty stringent conditions are met. Nevertheless, the government wrote its assault on strikes into law with the Trade Union Act, which puts even tighter limits on what now constitutes legitimate industrial action and, in the words of TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady, “attacks the right to strike – a fundamental British liberty. It poses a serious threat to good industrial relations and is completely unnecessary.”
It hasn't yet been implemented, but the Act's provisions will include minimum turnouts for strike votes (hard to reach as unions are also banned from using online or workplace voting systems), tighter time limits on mandates for strikes, restrictions on picketing and bureacratic changes which will give employers chances to use the courts to stop strikes. Workers will still technically have a right to strike, but the Act makes the right much harder to access.
The real story of industrial action today
Just how unnecessary this new Act is is borne out by the latest stats on strike action:
- Less than 3 in 100,000 working days were lost to strike action in 2015
- 81,000 people went on strike last year – the lowest number since records began
- Only 106 strikes took place in 2015 – that’s twenty times fewer than in 1975!
- Strikes are very rare and seldom last longer than three days
Trade unions were joined by Liberty, Amnesty International, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and the devolved Scottish and Welsh governments in their opposition to the legislation. We won many important concessions and changes in the final Trade Union Act, killing most of its most damaging proposals, but it's still a thoroughly bad piece of legislation.
Attacks on the basic right to strike are attacks on the ability of ordinary workers to successfully negotiate fair pay, conditions and practices. Like Deliveroo’s couriers and workers at this London cinema. Without the last-resort of the right to withold our labour, the balance of power in the working relationship is stacked even more heavily against working people.
At the TUC we’re committed to fighting to uphold fair pay and conditions for the UK’s workers wherever they are under threat and we will be watching how the Act is implemented carefully over the coming months. The campaign is certainly not over yet.