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Strikes for Individuals in The Workplace

By: Chris Hogan MSc - Updated: 7 Nov 2012 | comments*Discuss
Work Right Legal Strike Union Solidarity

It is possible for an individual to strike, if they think their rights are being infringed in the workplace. But you need the backing of a union in order to have your right to strike upheld in law, and it’s a lot harder compared to coming with your colleagues to back you.

The legal framework for striking has changed over the last 30 years, with much of the legislation enacted by the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s still in place. The upshot of this is that although the right to strike is still a legally protected one, unofficial strikes are almost impossible to sustain and legal ones, those backed by Trade Unions who have followed the full process of the law, are harder to instigate.

Protected Strikes

Strictly speaking, one individual coming out on strike has the same rights as a whole workforce coming out. The legality of a strike hinges around whether or not the union has followed the right process in calling the strike, not the numbers involved. This would involve secret ballots and following the regulations about giving an employer notice, among others. This is then know as a 'protected' strike, which means that those on strike cannot be sacked or otherwise discriminated against because they have Taken Industrial Action.

However, in practice it is another matter. If you are on your own in the strike matter and a ballot is called after negotiations with employers have broken down, then your colleagues, who don’t share your feelings about the matter, would presumably vote against strike action. That would leave you as the only person coming out on strike and as you would be doing it without the backing of the union, your strike would therefore be 'unprotected'. This would mean that your employer could then sack you for breach of contract if you took action.

Lone Strikes

The only other scenario where you could call a lone protected strike would be if you were the only person belonging to a particular union at a workplace. If that union called a strike after a ballot came out in favour of national action, then you could strike and be protected by the law. Realistically though, an employer could take action against you for some other reason unrelated to the strike and as long as there was enough evidence to support that, it would be very hard to prove that the employer was really victimising you because of your involvement in industrial action.

Taking Employers to Court

In fact, quite often employers will take action against an employee knowing that they are on dodgy ground, relying on the employee's lack of knowledge of employment law to keep them out of trouble. And because employment law is in the realm of civil law, not criminal law, there's not going to be any police action to rescue workers whose rights are infringed. That means the only recourse to compensation or enforcement of the law is to hammer it out in the courts.

Many people will not be comfortable with taking an employer to court, even though many employment cases are settled out of court. This can be either through Arbitration or because one side decides that they are likely to lose and back out of the case, agreeing compensation. And even if an employee won a case, not many people would want to go back to work for an employer they had last seen in a courtroom.

Reality of Solo Action

So, in a nutshell, although there is no difference in legal rights between one person or a thousand coming out on strike, the reality is that it is much less practical for someone to do it on their own, and they lose a lot of the unofficial power that comes from solidarity in the workplace.

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