Could taking action on climate change result in disciplinary action?

Last week, people all over the world took part in mass rallies as part of a global climate change strike. The 20 September protests were some of the largest climate strikes in history, with millions leaving their desks to join marches across their cities.

In the UK, it was estimated that 300,000 people took part in over 200 events organised by the UK Student Climate Network, who encouraged adults to join young people in taking to the streets. Many employers will wholeheartedly support this movement, with some even choosing to close their businesses to support their workers taking action. However, with similar protests expected on 27 September, the potential immediate impact of such protests on business is increasingly likely to become an additional concern.

By leaving or not attending work to join a protest, employees are technically striking and in breach of their employment contracts. While employers cannot dismiss an employee for taking part in a “lawful strike”, strikes are only considered lawful if they satisfy certain regulatory requirements. These requirements include that the strike must be supported by a ballot organised by a trade union and be about a “trade dispute” – namely, a dispute between an employer and employee that is connected with the terms or conditions of employment Even if a strike is lawful, employers may withhold all or part of the employees’ pay.

While many will see the threat of irreversible ecological damage as being in a different league to the threat of disciplinary action, employees need to be aware that climate change strikes are unlikely to be considered “lawful” industrial action as in the vast majority of cases there would not be a trade dispute. By leaving or not attending work to join the strikes, employees may be in breach of their employment contract, which could result in disciplinary action, including dismissal.

We are not suggesting that employers will, let alone should, go down this route, however the best thing to do for all parties is to engage in early discussion. For employers, you may want to consider how employees’ desire to participate in the strike action can be facilitated while at the same ensuring the efficient running of your business is maintained. For example, you could seek to agree with relevant employees when they might leave their positions to join protests so as to minimise the impact on the business. In some cases it may even suit all concerned to organise an event in the workplace rather than have employees leaving. Generally, the target of the action will not be the employer which should make this easier to manage.

Employees should talk to their employers in plenty of time about their desire to join this strike action and try to agree what can be accommodated.
Such dialogue should minimise the unnecessary disruption to employers who are not the target of the action and of employees finding themselves the subject of a disciplinary or similar process.

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Natasha Meikle

About Natasha Meikle

Natasha advises employers and employees on a wide range of employment issues. She has experience in dealing with both contentious and non-contentious matters. She acts for both public and private sector clients, across a variety of industries including education, leisure, financial and charity.

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