Last reviewed 16 June 2022

The history of governments and trade unions is a lengthy one that has often been strained and occasionally disruptive (many still remember the winter of discontent in the late 70s and the coal miners strikes in the 80s). Attempts to weaken and strengthen trade union powers by various governments have been made throughout the years. It would seem that in 2022, not much has changed, as people up and down the country are busy preparing for what Secretary of State for Transport and Welwyn Hatfield MP, Grant Shapps, has called the biggest strikes in “modern history” on 21, 23 and 25 June.

The power of trade unions

Rail strikes

The strikes have arisen due to pay, conditions and planned job cuts. The RMT union, which includes drivers, guards, catering staff, signallers and track maintenance workers has responded by balloting their members, in accordance with the law on industrial action, on whether to strike across Network Rail and 13 train operating companies, resulting in rail operations on the days of the strikes being at a fifth of their usual levels. Network Rail has not been involved in strike action since 1994, and their involvement is particularly disruptive as it will impact the movement of goods and freight.

The Government have been critical of this action, accusing the RMT of using strikes as a first, and not last, resort. Secretary of State Grant Shapps has even been quoted as saying:

“These strikes are incredibly premature and we will use every possible lever to ensure that the public is protected in the future in particular. I can’t over-stress our determination to get the right outcome for the travelling public in the end on this, even if the unions insist on putting the country through considerable pain in the meantime.”

He has also referred to them as “holding the country to ransom”.

Care worker strikes

Strike action has also been voted for in Bristol by members of the union Unison, where 100 staff at a care provider have voted in favour of industrial action over their employer’s proposals to use fire and re-hire tactics in order to push through wage cuts of up to £400 per employee per month. Unison General Secretary Christina McAnea is supporting the strikers against what she has called “savage” pay cuts that are “short-sighted and cruel” and has called their treatment “shabby”.

What is the Government doing about this?

In the days before the result of the RMT ballot were known, it was shared by Grant Shapps that the Government was looking into laws requiring minimum staffing levels during industrial action. This would essentially make industrial action illegal unless these levels are met, which would be a significant blow to the power of the unions by minimising the disruptive potential of strikes.

Whilst this is not new information (it has previously featured in the Conservative manifesto as a pledge designed to protect freight routes and travel), the timing of the comments are clearly targeted at impending strike action. Union leaders have already responded to say that the Government would face the fiercest opposition to such actions; whether this will mean further disruption to the general public, we don’t yet know.

Other plans to use secondary legislation to change the law to allow agency workers to cover for striking workers have also been disclosed by Shapps. This legal restriction was first imposed by the Labour Government led by Tony Blair. The removal of this could be implemented relatively quickly but could backfire and fuel even more disruption and unrest among the striking workers.

At this time, these are just proposals, and certainly in the case of minimum staffing levels, they can take some time to come through, if they ever do. However, in taking this stance, the Government have indicated their intentions to reduce the power of the unions.

Governmental action in other areas

The possible reduction in trade union power has been seen in another, perhaps surprising, area of the law. It was reported at the beginning of June 2022 that the Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, was asked via a parliamentary question whether plans were being considered to give teachers the statutory right to be accompanied to grievance and disciplinary hearings by an external lawyer or representative of a body other than a trade union by amending the Employment Relations Act 1999.

Whilst a direct response was not given by the minister, a fellow MP answering on his behalf replied in the affirmative. Should it come about, this step would be significant. Not only would it give teachers greater rights during statutory processes, it also chips away at trade unions. They have always had the monopoly on the ability to accompany individuals at formal hearings by virtue of s.10 of the Employment Relations Act 1999 (alongside colleagues), but should this be changed it paves the way for other representative bodies to step in, ones that are not subject to the same rules and laws as trade unions are.

Summary

It would seem that unless drastic action is taken, we are going to see significant disruption on the trains in June. Whether that action will be the trade unions or the Government and employers backing down, or the powers of the unions being weakened, we cannot yet say. Nevertheless, it would seem that trade unions and the laws that govern them will be an area of interest for many for some time to come.