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Taking Industrial Action

By: Chris Hogan MSc - Updated: 5 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
Workers Rights Business Company Employer

Once negotiations between workers and employees have broken down workers often take industrial action in order to force employers to back down. This often refers to going on strike, but there are other forms of action that are less disruptive, such as ordering a go-slow, work-to-rule or an overtime ban.

Non-Strike Action

Work-to-rule, go-slow or overtime ban are all ways of slowing down productivity without actually stopping work. In a go-slow, workers do exactly that, work at a slower pace than usual, and an overtime ban may damage a production facility that relies on employees working longer hours to hit targets.

A work-to-rule is more complex, employees work to their job description and refuse to do any work that is not explicitly theirs to do, while at the same time following Health And Safety or other regulations to the letter, all of which makes the business less efficient.

The advantage of work-to-rule is that employees are following the rules, which makes it difficult for bosses to take disciplinary action, as with overtime bans, because overtime has to be by choice. A go-slow or a full-blown strike, on the other hand, might result in disciplinary action being taken by members, although that might have further consequences.

Situation in the United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom changes in Union Laws in the 1980s and 1990s made it harder for unions to legally take industrial action, although the introduction of secret ballots did stop union intimidation of workers who were against action. The correct procedure now is for any union calling industrial action to give seven days detailed notice to the employer concerned, then to conduct a secret postal ballot of all members, where only a majority vote will allow the action to take place.

While this did, as previously mentioned, protect union members from intimidation to vote a particular way, it also removed the immediate impact of strike action that a show of hands on the shop floor could provide. Another impact was that it is now much more expensive for unions to organise strikes, so they became pickier about which issues to call ballots for and less likely to get a positive vote actioned, as postal returns are rarely 100%.

Legal Protection for Workers Taking Industrial Action

As long as the procedures have been followed, workers involved in industrial action enjoy the protection of the law. The dispute has to be between specific workers and their employers, which has effectively killed off strikes in sympathy of workers involved in other disputes. The protection that the law offers is against dismissal or other disciplinary action for involvement in industrial action.

After 12 weeks of dispute the legal situation changes. Striking employees can claim unfair dismissal if the company can be shown to not have tried to settle the argument. In addition, workers who gave up the industrial action before the end of the 12 week period, but were subsequently dismissed, can claim unfair dismissal.


Of course, this is all about risk. Strike action (as well as combative and incompetent management) and the perceived strength of the unions led to the decimation of the UK's manufacturing sector and the introduction of punitive laws that constrained and sometimes bankrupted unions. After all, it's no good getting a successful claim for unfair dismissal if the company has gone bust or closed their operation, as there'll be no job to be reinstated to.

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