Technically, there is no such thing in British law as a right to strike. The right is not to suffer a detriment as a result of taking part in a strike, provided the strike has been properly called. So, contrary to anything Mr Clarkson of the jeans and jacket combo might say, provided that proper ballots are held and notices given, workers are perfectly entitled to withdraw their labour to further a dispute regarding terms or conditions of or affecting employment.
If a dispute arises, it’s important to meet with representatives of your employees as soon as possible in order to try to resolve the situation. The initial meeting should be to define the cause of the dispute, to clarify who speaks for which side and to explore what options are available to resolve the conflict.
For a dispute to be lawful it must be a ‘trade dispute’. This means it must be a dispute between workers and their own employer and it must be wholly concerned about employment related matters, e.g. pay, working conditions, jobs, discipline etc. A trade union is legally responsible for organising industrial action and it is only legal if the trade union authorises or endorses the action. Authorisation must take place before the industrial action starts. A strike ballot should not take place until any agreed procedures have been completed and all other means of resolving the dispute have been looked at. Employers can take legal action against any trade union which calls for strike action before a secret ballot has taken place.
By law, unions must give seven days’ notice of strike action to an employer stating that it intends to hold a ballot, the date on which the union reasonably believes the ballot will take place and any other information the union has which will help the employer make plans. The union must also give the employer a sample voting paper at least three days before the ballot. If the company has several sites, a separate ballot may need to be held at each workplace where strike action is proposed.
If workers vote in favour of strike action, it must begin within four weeks of the ballot taking place. This period may be extended up to eight weeks after the ballot but only if the union and the employer both agree to it.
To secure protection, attention to detail is essential, as a number of GPs who planned to join the recent public sector strike found out.
Although the Medical Practitioners’ Union (MPU) balloted its members as part of the public sector union Unite, the GPs’ union discovered that it would be illegal to take strike action as planned on 30 November.
After taking legal advice the MPU said that GPs’ contractual arrangements were such that GP practices were considered as separate entities – due to their status as independent contractors.
Every practice should therefore have issued its own ‘intention to strike’ notice to its employer – the PCT – before it could take any form of action. This hadn’t happened.
However, in the event of further industrial action the GPs are now aware of what needs to be done in order to participate.