50% turnout requirement
From March 01 2017, industrial ballots must attract a 50% turnout in order for their results to be legally valid. For instance, if 100 workers are eligible to vote, and only 49 turnout for the vote, workers cannot take industrial action even if all 49 vote in favour.
40% support requirement
Since March 01 2017, workers whose role mostly concerns the delivery of “important” public services (including some workers outsourced to private companies) have to reach a 40% support threshold among all workers eligible to vote, as well as the 50% turnout threshold, in order to take action. This means that if 100 workers are eligible to vote, at least 50 have to vote, and at least 40 of them has to vote in favour. If 50 voted and 39 voted in support, it would still not be legal to take industrial action, even though the vast majority of voters elected for it.
Expected impact of the new laws
Currently, trade unions are restricted to holding postal ballots and are not permitted to ballot their members in the workplace or online. Because it is difficult to gain a high turnout through this particularly cumbersome method of collecting votes, it may be more difficult for unions to take industrial action.
Although the government conceded to pressure from opposition parties to investigate the feasibility of e-balloting to improve union ballot turnout, a review of the security of such technology for industrial action ballots by Sir Ken Knight recommended against its use. This is despite the fact that e-balloting is already accepted as a secure way to ballot members of the Conservative Party during internal elections.
Strike action is at an historic low with only 800,000 work days lost per year, compared – for example – to days lost due to work-related accidents and injuries (28.2 million days lost per year). Now that it is even harder for workers to strike, we can expect these numbers to fall even further.
Strike action is normally employed by unions as a last resort with employers who refuse to provide fair pay and conditions for workers. In the employment relationship, most of the power sits with the employer, as there are more workers able to take jobs than jobs to go around. This means that if there were no laws in the employer’s way, there would be nothing to stop them from pitting workers against each other in a race to the bottom on wages and conditions. Unions have the power to take industrial action as part of a collection of laws that seek to redress this power imbalance and thus prevent the exploitation of workers. Strikes act as a bargaining chip at the negotiating table, giving unions the leverage they need to get a fair deal for workers. Because this law makes it more difficult to take strike action, workers may see a lowering of wages and conditions and modern-day problems with exploitation could get worse.