What to do when your employees’ union plans a strike

Debbie Hilditch explains the rights employees have when industrial action is planned for their workplace

Union strikes have been a popular topic across the press recently. 4,000 British Airways (BA) pilots were involved in the September 2019 industrial action, costing BA up to £40m a day with a damaging reputational impact. 

Amazon employees have also been striking and we have also seen other employees striking over climate change. 

In light of such public strikes, it is crucial now more than ever for employers to understand their employees’ rights when industrial action is planned. At a basic level, trade unions are independent of employers and are made up of members, mostly workers. The role of a trade union is to protect its members and look after their interests in relation to their place of work. 

Industrial action takes place under circumstances where trade union members are in dispute with their employer. To be part of the trade union, workers must physically join and become members. If a dispute arises which cannot be solved through negotiations, members can then go on strike or take other action, like refusing to do overtime, which is known as ‘action short of a strike’.

For a union to strike, the organisers must decide which members are impacted by the dispute and then inform each member that a vote will take place. This vote is in the form of a ballot, where members vote either for or against industrial action. If a majority of members vote for action, the employer must have at least seven days’ notice before a strike can take place. Should the union break these rules, members should avoid striking since they are not protected against dismissal. 

If members wish to strike, as most BA pilots did in the recent action, they cannot be forced back to work. It is against the law for employees to be dismissed for striking as long as their union followed the correct procedures when conducting the industrial action. 

Employees can be deducted pay for the days they strike, however, and the length of service they have completed will be reduced by the number of days an employee was on strike. This is important when working out pension and statutory rights, such as redundancy. Non-union members who take part in legal, official industrial action have the same rights as union members not to be dismissed as a result of taking action.

Some employees may not wish to strike. This is often due to fear of their dismissal, despite firing striking employees being illegal. Choosing not to strike can be a challenging path to take when the majority of other members are taking industrial action. Employees who choose not to strike cannot be disciplined by their union for not taking part. Choosing not to take part in a strike may be for a variety of reasons; some may decide they cannot afford to lose a day’s pay, whereas others may feel loyal to their role or the management team. On the other hand, some employees do not wish to cross a picket line, but pickets cannot prevent employees from going to work or doing their usual work if they wish to. 

Whatever the reason may be, workers are well within their rights to decline to join a strike. On the other hand, employees are also within their rights to strike and will not face dismissal as a result of this.

Debbie Hilditch is an employment law and HR consultant at Richard Nelson LLP