In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

On the Trade Union Bill

The Trade Union Bill has passed its first test within the Commons. (Edited: BBC)

The Trade Union Bill has passed its first test within the Commons. (Edited: BBC)

Parliament backed the Trade Union Bill, which proposes a 50% quorum on industrial action, by 33 votes at its second reading [1]. In response, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has voted for a “day of action” to oppose the Bill [2].

“Essential services”

The Trade Union Bill seeks to establish a 50% turnout threshold for strike action to be valid, with the additional requirement that 40% of all eligible members must vote to strike in “essential services” [3]. The full list of employers and public services that are considered “essential” is defined in secondary legislation, but must be one of: health services; education of those aged under 17; fire services; transport services; nuclear decommissioning and border security. The notice period for industrial action is to be doubled to two weeks, and the strike mandate will expire four months after the ballot.

These three proposals have the capacity to prolong and exacerbate industrial disputes, since trade unions will hold longer voting periods to achieve quoracy and necessitate longer times before initiating a strike. Also, stoic employers could simply wait until the strike mandate has wrung its ghost after four months.

Unions must bear the costs of member ballots themselves [4]. Unlike student unions, who are not limited by the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 [5], trade unions cannot hold their votes in secure online sites, and must instead send ballot papers to their member’s houses with pre-paid return envelopes.

Changes are also proposed to union supervision of pickets. A picket supervisor must be an official or a union member, who must inform the police of their name, where the picket is taking place and how to contact them. This picket supervisor must have a letter of authorisation from the union, and must show this letter “to any constable who asks to see it” or “to any other person who reasonably asks to see it”. Furthermore, this picket supervisor must “wear a badge, armband or other item that readily identifies the picket supervisor as such”.

“Intimidatory behaviour”

These proposals are in response to intimidation by picketing workers against non-striking employees. For instance, the consultation document provides the following example [6], as one of four:

The Metropolitan Police Service has provided evidence of intimidatory behaviour at the 2012 London Fire Brigade strikes whereby eggs and flour were thrown at appliances being driven, Fire Station security door codes were changed by striking staff, striking staff refusing entry to Fire Station premises by linking arms and forming a physical barrier to the entrance and the filming of staff not in support of the strike.

Whilst it is agreed that such conduct is unacceptable, it is unclear how requiring a union official to wear a descriptive armband could have prevented such behaviour, or that in similar incidents. Indeed, the Regulatory Policy Committee described the government’s impact assessment as “not fit for purpose”, since “there is little evidence presented that there will be any significant benefits arising from the proposal” [7]. Reducing the intimidation of non-striking workers is a laudable goal, but the government has not sufficiently demonstrated the link between their proposals and this aim.

(Video: David Davis MP)

Also, requiring union supervisors to register with police has serious consequences for the privacy of that individual, and for the freedom of association inherent in union activity.

Whilst the consultation considered whether to have unions declare their intentions to use the internet or social media in advance, this idea is not currently within the Bill. It would be entirely impractical, since much time would be spent monitoring social media. Intimidation is a general problem, which should be remedied through legislation affecting all citizens, rather than focused solely on trade unions.

Labour disputes

Britain does not have particular trouble with labour disputes, which are at an historic low, with a recent peak of 1.39m working days lost in 2011 [8]. Mandating minimum turnout thresholds for strike action appears disproportionate, especially when Britain already has tough legislation in this area.

(Source: ONS)

(Source: ONS)

Trade unions could be made more modern through secure voting websites for their ballots, and should be considered a potential ally in two major challenges for Britain’s workforce: increasing productivity and enhancing digital skills.


[1] BBC, 2015. Trade union reforms pass first Commons test. Available from: [Accessed: 15th September 2015]

[2] BBC, 2015. TUC backs day of action over Trade Union Bill. Available from: [Accessed: 15th September 2015]

[3] Parliament, 2015. Trade Union Bill. Available from: [Accessed: 15th September 2015]

[4] Gov.UK, 2014. Taking part in industrial action and strikes. Available from: [Accessed: 15th September 2015]

[5] National Archives, 2011. Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. Available from: [Accessed: 15th September 2015]

[6] BIS, 2015. Consultation on tackling intimidation of non-striking workers. Available from: [Accessed: 15th September 2015]

[7] RPC, 2015. Tackling intimidation of non-striking workers. Available from: [Accessed: 15th September 2015]

[8] ONS, 2015. Labour Disputes Annual Article, 2014. Available from: [Accessed: 15th September 2015]



This entry was posted on September 15, 2015 by in National Politics and tagged , , .
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