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Trade unions on the decline?

Trade unions saw a large decline in their membership last year (losing 275,000 members last year) and reducing their overall numbers to 6.2 million according to the Office for National Statistics. The largest decreases were in the pubic sector with union membership falling by 209,000 to 3.6 million. However, there was also retraction in private entities by 66,000 to 2.6 million.

Trade union leaders have plenty to say about the reason for the decline. They have pointed to the Conservative government, which they say has a policy of “shrinking the union base” and austerity. They have said that cuts have meant a loss of good jobs being replaced by a large proportion of insecure jobs. Of course, the trade unions themselves might not be entirely without blame. The decline may represent some trade union members’ unhappiness with what their trade union is offering, or feeling that their trade union is not useful in today’s society. There have been several very public trade union actions in the past few years including the rail strikes and junior doctors strikes. The duration and on-going nature of the rail strikes, have proved unpopular with the public. There were challenges in the junior doctors dispute to the trade unions’ approach to spin, which some say resulted in a reluctance to resolve the issues amongst doctors. Taking industrial action aside, issues such as the gig economy also present a challenge to trade unions. Having a flexible workforce, often without a fixed base, makes it difficult for trade unions to reach out with their members. This is particularly so, if trade unions do not embrace social media and other technological advancements. Trade unions are not generally known for being at the forefront of developments, but that may need to change, if they do not want to see further decline. Employers who recognise trade unions may see this decline as a positive development, but given that trade unions may be feeling the need to emphasise their worth, it may not all be plain sailing.

Trade unions on the decline?

The Trade Union Act 2016: coming to an industry near you on 1 March 2017

Following our post on 22 December 2016, “2016: A year of discontent?” the Trade Union Act 2016 (Commencement No. 3 and Transitional) Regulations 2017 SI 2017/139 have been confirmed and the main provisions of the Trade Union Act 2016 are set to come into force on 1 March 2017.

The key provisions coming into force on 1 March 2017 include:

  • a 50 per cent turnout requirement for all ballots;
  • the requirement that 40 per cent of those entitled to vote must do so in favour of industrial action in “important public service” ballots (including the health, education, transport and border security sectors);
  • new rules on information requirements, including the requirement for a clear description of the trade dispute and the planned industrial action on the ballot paper;
  • an extension of the notice required for strike action from seven to 14 days; and
  • restrictions on “check-off” arrangements which require unions to make a reasonable contribution to the costs of administration.

You can find the full regulations here.

The Trade Union Act 2016: coming to an industry near you on 1 March 2017

2016: A year of discontent?

2016 has been a turbulent year and it seems to be going out with a bang, in what some have dubbed a “winter of discontent”. According to recent BBC analysis, in the first 10 months of the year 218,300 working days were lost to industrial action. We’ve seen a week of industrial action from rail workers and postal workers, and airlines are also anticipating disruption over the festive period. It’s been reported that Weetabix employees have voted to strike in the new year, so it doesn’t look things are going to slow down.

This is in a year where the Government amended trade union legislation to increase ballot thresholds, introduce new information and timing requirements in relation to industrial action, and impose legal requirements on unions for the supervision of picketing. However, the key provisions of the Trade Union Act 2016 have not come into force as yet and the Government has not set out any specific timetable for implementation.

Current legislation in force provides that industrial action will be unlawful unless at least 50% of trade union members who responded to the ballot voted in favour of the action. When the relevant provision of the new Act is brought into force, in addition to a majority being in favour of the action, unions will be required to show that at least 50% of all eligible members have voted.

Notwithstanding the new legislation, transport minister, Chris Grayling, and a number of other Tory backbenchers, have called for additional anti-strike laws. It’s not clear what such new laws would actually entail but Downing Street has been quick to distance itself from the calls, instead putting its faith in the power of negotiation and stressing that Parliament has already passed legislation to provide people with better protection from undemocratic industrial action. It looks like ACAS, the organisation devoted to preventing and resolving employment disputes, is going to be having a very merry Christmas.

2016: A year of discontent?

Electronic balloting: are trade unions about to leap into the digital age?

Back in the spring, when the Trade Union Act was in its bill stage, the House of Lords proposed an amendment for an electronic balloting review and piloting scheme. The amendment was incorporated into Section 4 of the Trade Union Act (which became law on 4 May 2016). This provision gave the Secretary of State six months to commission an independent review on the delivery of methods of electronic balloting (for ballots before action by a trade union). The fact that the review was announced on the last day available to the Secretary of State (3 November 2016) perhaps suggests that the government currently has bigger fish to fry. However, the former Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser for England, Sir Ken Knight, has now been tasked with looking at:

  1. risks of interception, impersonation, hacking, fraud, or misleading or irregular practices associated with electronic balloting;
  2. whether systems can be safeguarded to reduce risk of intimidation of union members and protect anonymity of voters;
  3. security and resilience of existing practices of balloting union members; and
  4. the aims of the Trade Union Act to ensure that strikes and related disruption to the public only occur as a result of the clear, positive decisions of those entitled to vote.

Sir Ken Knight now has until December 2017 at the latest to prepare his report. Once the report is presented to the Secretary of State, she will need to consider the report and publish her response to it. If there have not already been pilot schemes put in place by that time, it is likely that they will follow. Further, the Act requires the Secretary of State to consult relevant organisations, including professionals from expert associations, to seek their advice and recommendations. All this means that change is unlikely to happen quickly.

So will the trade unions be forced into the digital age by electronic balloting? Perhaps. It seems likely that there will be workable solutions to many of the issues highlighted above. However, by the time electronic balloting is effective, trade unions are likely to have been forced to modernise significantly in light of other challenges (including the increased use of agile and flexible working). Therefore, it is unlikely to be much of a leap for them.

Electronic balloting: are trade unions about to leap into the digital age?

We’re all still going on a summer holiday with British Airways

91 per cent of the 8,800 members of the British Airlines Stewards and Stewardesses Association have voted to take industrial action against their employer British Airways. Holidaymakers will be relieved to know that there are no current plans for the workforce to strike. However, there is a real dispute about the introduction of a new performance management system for employees, which aims to give instant feedback on performance from passengers and colleagues. The union alleges that crews are receiving negative feedback for situations that are not their fault such as glitches in the entertainment system or air-conditioning. The union also believes that British Airways is conspiring to make future job losses on the back of this new scheme. British Airways does not accept these claims and believes this type of management system is common in many industries. The union has decided that the industrial action will involve cabin crews refusing to engage with the new performance management system and refusing to sign off on feedback forms. Regardless of whether this performance management system is appropriate or not, it is clear that effective performance management tools are critical to successful businesses. Evidence of performance management actions such as appraisal forms and performance improvement plans are essential if an employer wishes to justify taking disciplinary action such as capability warnings and potentially even dismissal against an employee for poor performance.

We’re all still going on a summer holiday with British Airways

Insight: UK Employment Law Round-up – May 2016

During our Annual Update seminar on 27 April 2016, we discussed some of the legislative changes that employers should look out for over the next 12 months. One of these was the Trade Union Bill having now received Royal Assent.

UK Employment Newsletter 3DCoverIn this issue we also look at the EU’s Trade Secrets Directive and how this could impact on whistleblowers in the UK, as well as the Government’s call for evidence on the use of non-compete clauses.

We will also analyse cases which look at whether employees have a right to privacy in the workplace regarding email communications, whether terms contained in an employee handbook can be incorporated within an employee’s contract of employment and how tribunals should approach the remedy of re-engagement.

Read the full newsletter here.

Insight: UK Employment Law Round-up – May 2016

We’re all going on a…strike!

Cabin crew at Thomas Cook have voted by a three to one majority in favour of strike action following the travel group’s change to rest breaks. More than half of the 1,000 staff members voted and three-quarters of those supported industrial action.

Unite, the union representing the staff, is in dispute with Thomas Cook after it reduced its cabin crew’s breaks from one 20-minute break every six hours to one 20-minute break every 12 hours worked. Unite says the cabin crew should have at least two 20-minute breaks every 12 hours.

Under the Working Time Regulations 1998, workers have the right to an uninterrupted 20-minute rest break away from their workstation if their day’s working time exceeds six hours. Statute limits this right to one 20-minute break per day if the shift is at least six hours. Therefore, even if the shift is 12 hours or more, an employer only needs to offer one break. However, this is subject to the employer’s general duty to prevent risks to health and safety. Employers may also use a collective agreement to determine the duration of any rest break and the terms on which it is granted. Thomas Cook states that the union agreed to the change in rest breaks two years ago.

The change to the rest breaks introduced by Thomas Cook accords with the Working Time Regulations as well as the minimum limits set by the Civil Aviation Authority. However, the cabin crew are advancing an argument that this change will affect the health and safety of both the crew and the passengers.

For the proposed strike to go ahead, Unite must give Thomas Cook seven days’ notice. As Unite has not yet served this notice, Thomas Cook hopes that the dispute will not affect half-term holidays. However, it may be that the strike action will disrupt summer holidays instead.

We’re all going on a…strike!

The Trade Union Bill receives Royal Assent

The Trade Union Bill received Royal Assent yesterday. The commencement date is currently unknown but the new legislation will be brought into force by a statutory instrument in due course.

The key provisions of the Act are as follows:

  • At least 50% of all eligible members must have voted in the strike ballot.
  • In “important public services” at least 40% of those entitled to vote must have voted in favour of the action.
  • New information requirements have been introduced, including the requirement for a clear description of the trade dispute and the planned industrial action on the ballot paper.
  • The notice required for strike action has been increased from 7 days to 14 days.
  • A six month time limit has been introduced for strike action to take place after a ballot (or 9 months if agreed between the union and the employer).
  • Public sector employers will be required to publish information on the facility time taken by union representatives. The government has reserved powers to make regulations limiting facility time to a fixed percentage of an employee’s working time.
The Trade Union Bill receives Royal Assent

Insight: Strike out? UK issues proposals to curb strikes

Plans to modernise London’s underground (known as the Tube) to offer a 24-hour weekend service on selected lines has resulted in London being held to ransom as Tube staff walked out in a series of strikes during August 2015. Servicing one of the busiest cities in the world, the Tube has more than three million users every day. Strike action on the Tube therefore causes travel chaos, with London brought to a near standstill as people struggle to find alternative transportation and many avoid travelling into the capital altogether.

Given the significant level of disruption caused by such industrial action (particularly where essential services are affected) and the seemingly increased frequency of such action, the UK Conservative Government has issued proposals to legislate aimed at making it more difficult for strike action to take place in the UK. The Trade Union Bill as it is known, is therefore intended to prevent what the government describes as “disruptive and undemocratic strike action.”

Read the full article here.

Insight: Strike out? UK issues proposals to curb strikes