Rail workers on the picket line at Port Talbot, South Wales. Image: RMT
Britain has seen a wave of strike action across some of its most essential services with nurses, ambulance workers, 999 call handlers, teachers and rail workers walk off the job to demand better pay.
February 1 was a landmark day of strikes, termed “the most important coordinated walkout in a century”, by trade unions historian Dr Edda Nicolson, with hundreds of thousands of teachers, Border Force official, trains drivers and university staff joining picket lines and demonstrations.
Here’s what you need to know about your rights if you’re thinking about going on strike, and what the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill could mean for you.
Is there a right to strike in the UK?
The right to strike is recognised by the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO) as a fundamental right enshrined in international human rights and labour law, and that protecting it is necessary for a just, stable and democratic country.
While there is not a legal right to strike in UK law, strike action is legal if organised by a trade union according to conditions laid out in the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.
What are the rules for organising a strike?
A union must first be recognised by the workplace it is active in, and have raised a dispute on behalf of its members. It may then ask its members to vote by post – called a ballot to strike – on whether they wish to strike or not.
Unions have to give a minimum of seven days notice to a workplace where they are planning industrial action. This doubled in 2014, when the government also brought in rules requiring at least 50 per cent turnout of union members when deciding on strike action.
Can I go on strike if I’m not in a union?
A strike that is started by workers without any union involvement is called a wildcat strike. Only a union can legally obtain a mandate to strike, so any strike that takes place without authorisation from a union is a breach of an employment contract, and offers no protection from being sacked.
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the name ‘wildcat’ comes from the characteristics associated with the animal: unpredictability and uncontrollability. Sometimes wildcat strikes may include individuals who are part of a union, but the union has not organised or authorised the strike.
Amazon has refused to recognise any union, despite GMB seeking voluntary recognition. The union is seeking to grow its membership to 50 per cent, at which point it will be able to apply to the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) to force the company to recognise it. This would enable GMB to undertake collective bargaining on behalf of its members.
Are wildcat strikes illegal in the UK?
Wildcat strikes are not necessarily illegal, but they usually amount to a breach of employment contract or terms of employment.
A strike that is organised by a registered union according to the correct procedure is legal, and offers those participating in it protections from punitive measures or dismissal. But workers who take part in a ‘wildcat strike’ are not protected from dismissal.
The laws around industrial action are extremely complex. The Trades Union Congress advises that anyone who wants to start industrial action should seek legal advice.
Could I be fired for going on strike?
If you choose to go on strike, you are breaking the terms in your employment contract, however if this is part of legitimate industrial action, your boss should not take any disciplinary actions.
“As long as a labour strike is properly organised through a ballot, employers do not have grounds for dismissal,” said Andrew Strong, senior tutor at The University of Law.
For up to 12 weeks after the industrial action, workers are protected from being sacked due to having gone on strike, and if they are, an unfair dismissal claim can be brought against them at an employment tribunal.
But after those 12 weeks are up, employees may not be protected from punitive measures brought against them in retaliation for striking.
“You should also be aware that you cannot and are not protected from striking on behalf of someone else’s employer, also known as secondary action,” adds Strong.
Also called sympathy strikes, legislation introduced in the 1980s banned secondary action which take place when a union instructs its members to go on strike in support of another union and its causes. However this legislation would not stop separate unions co-ordinating strike action on the same day to cause maximum disruption.
Am I entitled to pay when on strike?
If you choose to stop working and participate in a strike, you are no longer entitled to pay.
“While employers may deduct your pay, they legally cannot take more than one fifth of your weekly pay for a day’s strike action. For part-time employees, pay deductions should be based on pro-rata and for only your contracted hours,” explained Strong.
Going on strike can be a serious financial strain for workers whose reasoning for taking part in industrial action might be because their current pay is unsustainable. Some unions offer a strike fund, paid for by membership subscriptions, to help those who might suffer severe financial hardship when participating in a strike.
“We did a lot of interviews with trade unions… and what really came across is that they don’t want to take strike action… It means their members lose pay and so on, it really is a last resort,” said CIPD employee relations adviser Rachel Suff.
Some unions offer strike pay to their members who participate in industrial action to prevent them falling into financial hardship. Unite offers its members £70 a day, while the Royal College of Nursing upped its allowance from £50 a day to £80, recently saying it would give £120 a day for nurses taking part in two consecutive days of strike action.
The National Education Union (NEU), on the other hand, does not offer strike pay to teachers.
Do I have a duty of care to the public when on strike?
When people working in the emergency services go on strike, there is the additional consideration of the impact on the public that must be considered.
The Royal College of Nurses has called its first national strike in its 106 year history, with thousands of nurses set to walk out for two days in December. The Fire Brigades Union, too, is balloting its members on whether they wish to take strike action, after rejecting a five per cent pay offer from the government.
It is a legal requirement under Trade Union and Labour Relations 1992 to make sure that strike action does not endanger human life or cause serious injury – it is a criminal offence to strike if there is a risk of this happening.
Emergency treatment by nurses will always be maintained during strike action, the RCN has confirmed. A team will review minimal staffing levels at every health trust facing strike action to make sure there are always enough nurses working to maintain patient safety, a spokesperson told The Big Issue,.
If a major emergency were to happen that would require more nursing staff, nurses would be taken off picket lines and return to work.
There are different ways of managing a nursing strike. Trusts may choose to implement a “Sunday service” or Christmas Day service or make certain essential services – such as intensive care – exempt from strike action.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said they hoped nurses would carefully consider the impact any strike action would have on patients.
“We value the hard work of NHS nurses and are working hard to support them,” the spokesperson said. The government increased the basic pay for newly qualified nurses by 5.5 per cent earlier this year, however most nurses received a rise of around 3.7 per cent.
What is the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill?
Staff who refuse to do so could risk losing their jobs.
“As well as protecting the freedom to strike, the government must also protect life and livelihoods,” said business secretary Grant Shapps, the former transport secretary who was unable to reach an agreement with railways union the RMT before leaving the role.
“While we hope that voluntary agreements can continue to be made in most cases, introducing minimum safety levels – the minimum levels of service we expect to be provided – will restore the balance between those seeking to strike and protecting the public from disproportionate disruption.”
How much progress has the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill made in parliament?
The bill has passed through the House of Commons and is now facing scrutiny from the Lords.
That said, only a dozen or so peers, out of 780 members, turned up for the second reading of the legislation that could fundamentally undermine the right to strike when the first debate took place on February 21.
“While I would emphasise that the government firmly believes that the ability to strike is important—it is rightly protected by law—the recent industrial action has highlighted the disproportionate impacts that strikes can have on the public,” said Tory peer Lord Cannon.
“We need to be able to have confidence that when strikes occur, people’s lives and livelihoods are not put at undue risk, and so do the public; that is why this legislation is needed.”
In response, Labour peer Baroness O’Grady, former general secretary of the TUC, said that the bill would “override the authority of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Parliament”.
“Can the minister confirm that the bill ultimately gives the secretary of state powers to set so-called minimum service levels for strikes at 80 per cent, 90 per cent or, indeed, 100 per cent? In which case, would it not be more accurate and honest to title it the “ban strikes” bill?” she asked.
“Taking powers to strip nurses, teachers, firefighters, transport workers and others of their livelihoods, when they strike for better pay and conditions, is not generally regarded as a feature of a free society.”
The bill will reach the committee stage on March 9.
But the bill faces further scrutiny as the Regulatory Policy Committee (RPC), which analyses new pieces of legislation, recently found that an assessment by ministers on its impact was “not fit for purpose”.
“The bill will provide powers to introduce minimum service levels during strikes across a range of prospective sectors, with those levels to be set through secondary legislation,” the committee found.
“Our red-rating reflects the insufficient assessment of the impacts of the bill on small and micro businesses as required by the better regulation framework.”
How have people responded to the ‘anti-strike’ legislation?
The proposals have sparked anger among unions, which say they will take legal action to resist this attack on the fundamental democratic right to strike.
Paul Nowak, general secretary of the TUC, has called the bill “spiteful”, “unworkable” and “almost certainly illegal”, vowing to fight the plans through parliament and through the courts.
He said: “The right to strike is a fundamental British liberty – but the government is attacking it in broad daylight.
“These draconian new curbs will tilt the balance of power even more in favour of bad bosses and make it harder for people to win better pay and conditions.
Nick Thomas-Symonds, shadow international trade secretary, argued that the proposals are a “wholly ineffective” method to address the current wave of strike action, claiming that the legislation would only “aggravate” the situation.
Jun Pang, policy and campaigns officer at human rights organisation Liberty said the proposals “completely undermine the purpose of striking, and will make it much harder for workers to exercise their basic rights”.