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12 August 2015
The controversial Trade Union Bill has had its first reading in Parliament. Business Secretary Sajid Javid has proposed reforms which have been called "the biggest crackdown on trade union rights for 30 years". If passed, they will be the most radical changes to the law on strikes and picketing since the 1980s.
Some of the reforms were fully anticipated following their inclusion in the Queen's Speech. Foremost among these are the minimum turnout requirements, under which 50% of those eligible to vote in a strike ballot will need to cast their vote in order for it to be lawful – the aim being to halt strikes which currently proceed despite low turnout. A double threshold will need to be met for strike ballots affecting 'important public services': not only will 50% of those eligible need to vote in the ballot, but additionally 40% of those eligible to vote will need to vote to approve the strike. This would apply to strikes by unions representing works in health, education, fire and rescue, transport, border security and energy. Notably, the government has specifically included aviation in its definition of 'transport services' – a point which had previously been uncertain.
Other reforms were not included in the Queen's Speech, but nonetheless had been previously trailed and are therefore unsurprising. These include giving employers the right to hire agency staff during a strike as direct replacements for striking workers – presently prohibited by the Conduct of Employment Agencies Regulations.
However, other reforms go further than was generally expected, including:
While many of the reforms will be welcomed by employers, unsurprisingly union leaders have reacted with anger, with Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey accusing the government of putting trade unionism "beyond the law". Trades Union Congress General Secretary Frances O'Grady said that the bill would "make it almost impossible for workers to exercise what is their democratic right and civil liberty". The unions are already hinting that if the law (in their view) makes lawful industrial action too difficult, they may simply ignore it.
The proposals will now be the subject of three separate consultations – on ballot thresholds in important public services, hiring agency staff during strike action and tackling intimidation of non-striking workers. The consultations close on September 9 2015 and the legislation is expected to progress swiftly through Parliament thereafter.
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