By Claire West

The CBI is today (Monday) calling for changes in the law to raise the threshold for industrial action, and to ensure that if strikes occur disruption is minimised.

In a new report, Keeping the wheels turning: modernising the legal framework of industrial relations, the UK’s leading business group outlines a package of measures to modernise employment relations legislation and keep the recovery on track.

Although most workplace disputes are resolved through negotiation, industrial action across the public sector could increase as the Government takes the necessary steps to reduce the deficit.

John Cridland, CBI Deputy Director-General, said:

“Industrial action is never inevitable, and in most cases common sense prevails and negotiation wins the day.

"We want to see public sector managers and unions going the extra mile during the difficult times ahead and working together constructively to avoid damaging industrial action.

"Our proposals suggest improvements to employment law that will help ensure that strikes remain a last resort."

The CBI believes the law needs updating to reflect the fact that 85% of private sector employees are not members of a union, and that most employers engage directly with staff or their representatives to bring about changes in the workplace.

As strike action has become increasingly rare, public attitudes towards unwelcome disruption have hardened and there is now a legitimate expectation that services will continue even if there are industrial disputes.

In its report, the CBI reiterates its call for the threshold for industrial action to be raised so that strikes can only go ahead if 40% of balloted members vote in favour of action, as well as a majority of those voting. Currently strikes can go ahead provided a majority of those voting support it, irrespective of the turnout.

It argues that in the event of a strike going ahead, businesses must be able to continue to deliver the services that the public and customers expect. To allow firms to keep trading through strikes, the CBI is calling for companies to be able to recruit agency staff to provide essential cover for striking workers. As the law stands now, firms can recruit temps directly, but not via an agency.

Mr Cridland added:

“When a legitimate strike threatens to disrupt the services on which the public depends, it is only right that it should require a higher bar of support. That is why no strike should go ahead unless 40% of the balloted workforce has voted for it.

“While workers have the legal right to withdraw their labour, employers have a responsibility to run their businesses. The public increasingly expects it to be business as usual, even during a strike, so firms must be allowed to hire temps from an agency to provide emergency cover for striking workers.”

Other proposals focus on making sure unions keep up-to-date membership records and strengthen the enforcement of the law to prevent illegal wildcat strikes.

The CBI is calling for:

Employers to be able to use agency temps to cover for striking workers.
The notice period for industrial action to increase from seven to 14 days after the ballot takes place to give the public and businesses more time to prepare for strikes.
Ballot mandates to be limited to the original dispute, not extended to other matters. The law should state that strikes can only go ahead based on the ballot relating to the original dispute and consequential matters should be subject to a fresh ballot.
People to have the right to decide whether they want to be represented by a union. Ballots should always be held on union recognition — it should never be automatic.
Strikes to be the result of a clear, positive decision by the workforce concerned. The test for a legitimate strike should be that 40% of balloted members support it as well as a simple majority of those voting.
Only paid-up union members should be able to vote — there should be a single legal definition of a union member.
Unions to keep records up to date. They should conduct an annual audit of their membership and make all reasonable endeavours to keep records accurate throughout the year.
Union members to hear both sides of the argument before voting in a strike ballot. Employers and unions should each be allowed to send concise statements with the ballot papers, setting out the scope, nature and reason for the dispute.
Union members need to understand the implications of striking for them personally. Ballot papers should include a notice warning that pay and non-contractual benefits can be withdrawn if an employee goes on strike.
Steps to curb wildcat strikes to be strengthened. The Certification Officer — the unions’ regulator — should be empowered to enforce the law more effectively.
Unions should face realistic sanctions for failing to observe the law. The cap on compensation should be increased for the first time since 1982 and damages should be awarded per day of strike action.

Mr Cridland commented:

“The re-emergence of unofficial wildcat strikes using social networks to evade the law has been particularly worrying. The union regulator needs to be given the power to stop these abuses which undermine the reputation of responsible unions.”