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22 June 2022 (updated 23 June 2022)

Following the announcement of a series of strikes organised by the RMT, detailed in our article here, the government has announced a number of plans targeted at the core of union powers.

Minimum workforce requirements during strikes

The government intends to change the law on strikes to require a minimum number of workers to remain in place during strike action, much to the anger of union leaders. Grant Shapps, Transport Secretary, has explained that this would be to protect freight shipments of essentials, such as fuel and food. This is not a new commitment, having previously been made in the 2019 Conservative manifesto, but it has now come back on the agenda with the current strike action affecting rail services across Great Britain, and rumours circulating of strikes elsewhere such as teachers, security staff, cleaners and refuse collectors.

At this stage, there is no indication of when this will be introduced, or indeed if it ever will be.  

Overturning legislation to allow employers to use agency workers to cover for striking workers

Regulation 7 of the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses Regulations 2003 prohibits the provision of a temporary worker to perform the duties normally performed by a striking worker. The government have proposed to overturn this, with legislation expected to be laid before parliament as soon as this week (week commencing 20 June 2022), which is expected to come into effect in mid-July.

The proposed changes will allow employers to bring in outside staff, should they choose to do so. This would in turn make it harder for unions to use strikes as a way to force employers’ hands in negotiations.

Concerns have been raised by Neil Carberry, chief executive of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, who highlighted that this would take focus from finding a resolution to the dispute, and by TUC Deputy General Secretary Paul Nowak. He has called such action potentially “reckless” as the agency staff would be less qualified and less experienced, which, according to Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves (speaking to the BBC) would make travel “less safe”.

Where do we go from here

These actions suggest a movement towards reducing the power of the unions, stopping them, as one government representative put it, from “holding the country to ransom”. This reduction in power was also seen recently on a separate issue, that of the right to be accompanied, when a response to a parliamentary question on teachers right to be accompanied by an external lawyer indicated Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, was considering allowing other parties to attend formal proceedings with teachers, such as representative bodies that are not trade unions.

Where the law in this area will end up, we cannot be certain right now. What is clear is that employee feeling is strong on job cuts, pay and conditions (the reasons given for the RMT strikes), and any employers looking to make changes in these areas must take action to get employees on their side and (hopefully) avoid any kind of industrial action all together.  

Update - 23 June 2022 

The government have made two announcements today regarding strikes and union powers. 

1. The new law overturning the ban on the use of agency workers during strikes has been unveiled. This will, according to the government press release, "give employers more flexibility" and is "...designed to minimise the negative and unfair impact of strikes on the British public by ensuring that businesses and services can continue operating. For example, strikes in public services such as education can often mean parents have to stay at home with their children rather than go to work, or rail sector strikes stopping commuters getting to work or to other businesses."

Businesses are reminded of their broader obligations to comply with health and safety rules, helped by the new law allowing them to hire "...trained, temporary workers to carry out crucial roles to keep trains moving. For instance, skilled temporary workers would be able to fill vacant positions such as train dispatchers, who perform vital tasks such as giving train drivers the signal they are safe to proceed and making sure train doors aren’t obstructed."

This is still subject to parliamentary approval. These changes are made through a statutory instrument and are set to come into force over the coming weeks and will apply across England, Scotland and Wales.

2. The government  is raising the maximum damages that courts can award against a union, when strike action has been found by the court to be unlawful. The caps on damages, which have not been changed since 1982, will be increased. For the biggest unions, the maximum award will rise from £250,000 to £1 million.

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