Industrial action on the rise: why collective strength matters

Industrial action is on the rise – from rail workers and port operators through to refuse workers, journalists, Post Office staff and even barristers. 

This has led Tory leadership candidates, and others in the cabinet, to ratchet up the anti-union rhetoric.

Liz Truss has said she “will legislate to make sure we can’t be disrupted by militant trade unions”, while BEIS secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, has claimed that “we will not let trade unions grind our economy to a halt”. 

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Trade unions are not ‘holding the country to ransom’. Instead, working people are using the only means at their disposal to secure the pay rises they need to get themselves through the cost of living crisis.

All at a time when CEOs’ pay is rising exponentially, huge dividends continue to be paid to shareholders and the government refuses to impose an energy price cap. And this government’s version of ‘levelling-up’ seems to be to attack trade union rights, and take those means away from working people.  

Over the past year, the courts have shown some sympathy for trade union rights, and the recognised place they hold in the international legal order.

In October 2021, for example, we successfully represented Unite members in the Supreme Court against their employer, Kostal, a car components manufacturer in Rotherham, for trying to bypass union pay negotiations.

In the first case in the UK’s highest court on trade union negotiating rights, the Supreme Court upheld the Unite members’ claims, relying on international trade union rights.

We achieved a similar outcome in a subsequent case for Unite members employed by chemicals giant Ineos Group.

Last month, we persuaded the High Court to refuse an application for an injunction by Midlands engineering company, GE Steam Power, to restrain industrial action organised by Unite.

The judge ruled that there was no defect in the way the union had described the trade dispute on its ballot paper.

One of our latest fights is alongside the TUC and 13 major trade unions, challenging the new regulations permitting the use of agency workers during industrial action.

Only recently, news broke that Harrods could be the first employer to use agency staff to replace workers, if they go ahead with industrial action, since the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses (Amendment) Regulations 2022 came into force in July.

We maintain that the new regulations are unlawful, not least because of the government’s failure to conduct an adequate consultation with affected interests before introducing them.

Part of the reason why industrial action is so important is the inadequate level of protection provided by UK employment laws. Take ‘fire and re-hire’ and P&O as just two examples.

P&O was able to sack its entire workforce, without a shred of notice or consultation, by a pre-recorded video message, and then subsequently replace it with agency workers on significantly reduced terms and conditions.

You don’t hear this government racing to legislate to stop the likes of P&O in the way it does when it comes to trade union rights.   

Industrial action is always a last resort, but it’s a necessary one when employers won’t listen. The current government and the Tory leadership candidates are encouraging employers and the public to see industrial disputes as malicious. They view them as something they can attack for political advantage.

In reality, workers take industrial action when they have no other option and nowhere else to turn. Making it harder to organise effective industrial action isn’t the answer.

Richard Arthur is head of trade union law at social justice law firm Thompsons Solicitors