Employment: Industrial action on significant scale roils UK

Sara Chessa Monday 15 August 2022

On 18 and 20 August, around 2,500 members of the UK’s Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) will go on strike. They’ll be joined on those days by members of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) – who were involved in previous industrial action earlier in the summer – and Unite members, who work as electrical control room operatives at Network Rail, in action over pay, job security and conditions.

In late August, dockers at the UK’s largest container port in Felixstowe plan an eight-day strike over pay. Meanwhile, bi-weekly strike action by the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) about the level of legal aid funding, which began in June, has continued into August.

‘The question of whether there should be a right to strike in industries that are deemed to be essential to the operation of civil society is as vexed as that related to whether a right to strike is an essential human right that is protected by public international law,’ says Peter Talibart, Council Member of the IBA Global Employment Institute and a partner at Seyfarth in London.

In late July the UK government passed legislation allowing companies to employ agency staff in the sectors where industrial action has had an impact. Members of the UK government have suggested they would implement further restrictions on the ability to strike.

‘I do not think it would be unreasonable to suggest that if people working in specific sectors are less able to withhold their labour than they are in other sectors, the quid pro quo is that they have some sort of protection against inflation, particularly as this is something that Government can take some steps to control,’ says Talibart.

Industrial action by UK barristers, meanwhile, follows the publication in December of the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid, which recommended a minimum increase in legal fees of 15 per cent. CBA members, meanwhile, had asked for a 25 per cent rise instead.

Inflation, cost of living adjustments, anger, disruption and workforce evolution will continue as we have no national plan in the US to deal with the next workforce revolution

Michael Lotito
Co-Chair, Littler’s Workplace Policy Institute

‘Criminal defence barristers in the UK are taking direct action to protest persistently low rates of pay, and some criminal defence solicitors are starting to take business decisions not to undertake loss-making work,’ explains Stephen Denyer, Co-Chair of the IBA Rule of Law Forum and Director of Strategic Relationships at the Law Society of England and Wales.

Denyer says the UK’s criminal justice system is in crisis, and points to a shortage of judges and lawyers to cover cases, as well as an enormous backlog of outstanding court cases. ‘The number of firms doing criminal defence work has roughly halved in the last 15 years, and many areas now have a shortage of duty solicitors,’ he adds. ‘This means that many people may not be able to access legal advice at the police station, a statutory right of every suspect.’

Denyer warns that, resulting from the lack of solicitors’ presence at all stages of a case, there’s a real danger of a wider loss of public trust in our legal system, as well as offenders feeling emboldened – undermining the rule of law.

‘The short-term impact of direct action by barristers will pale in significance against the permanent departure of ever more criminal defence solicitors, barristers and law firms unless their important work in the public interest is properly rewarded,’ he says.

The CBA will vote on 19 August on whether to replace its current bi-weekly strike actions with a continuous strike from 5 September onwards. A spokesperson for the UK Ministry of Justice (MoJ) called the strike action ‘disappointing’ and highlighted that ‘criminal barristers will receive a 15 per cent fee increase, equating to an average pay rise of £7,000 per year’.

‘The Government fast-tracked legislation so lawyers will start to receive the extra money from the end of September,’ the spokesperson added.

According to Talibart, as legal aid is publicly funded, it’s a question of priority for the Government. ‘As a rule of law system, we need the criminal process to function properly – but the 10 per cent differential really comes down to whether government has the money and believes it is better spent elsewhere.’

The MoJ has given a sense of what some of the competing priorities might be in discussing the CBA’s demand for the fee increase to apply for existing cases. The MoJ spokesperson told Global Insight that such a change would cost ‘a disproportionate amount of taxpayers’ money, meaning less money would be available for other priorities, such as increasing investment in victim support or funding court repairs, and would take longer to implement, meaning barristers would have to wait longer for payment.’

In Germany, there’s concern around further industrial action by pilots. Lufthansa reached an agreement with ground staff on 5 August, after a strike led to the cancellation of over 1,000 flights. However, talks will be held later in August with pilots, and walkouts are still possible. According to German legislation, strikes are lawful if the principle of proportionality is met.

‘If there’s a strike organised by your union, and an employer wants to stop it, the only way is to go to the local labour court and then to the regional labour court to ask for a preliminary injunction,’ explains Björn Gaul, Committee Liaison Officer on the IBA Employment and Industrial Relations Law Committee and a partner at CMS Hasche Sigle in Germany. He adds that, ‘In 99 per cent of these cases, the employer loses.’

In the US, workers are seeing the prices of essential goods and services increase by over 10 per cent in some cases. Wage increases, meanwhile, sit at about 5.5 per cent for many workers. According to Michael Lotito, co-chair of Littler’s Workplace Policy Institute, that the US has not yet seen public sector revolts is possibly because many states like California are very union-friendly.

However, discussion at union conventions suggests there could be strikes next year, with demands for cost of living adjustments (COLAs) to counteract inflation and other work-restrictive practices to compensate for AI issues and loss of jobs.

‘COLAs and “keeping up with inflation” breeds ongoing expectations that inflation has not peaked and will continue,’ says Lotito.

A major issue is the lack of a comprehensive strategy to navigate the changes the world is going through. ‘Inflation, COLAs, anger, disruption and workforce evolution will continue as we have no national plan in the US to deal with the next workforce revolution which we are currently in the early phases of and which will continue for a decade or more,’ says Lotito.

Image credit: Alex Yeung/AdobeStock.com

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