Anyone watching the news over the last few days and weeks cannot have failed to witness the now all too familiar scenes of striking French workers causing major disruption to road, rail and air links across the country.
The reason for this latest wave of industrial action stems from an attempt by the current French government, led by Francois Hollande, to make France’s gold plated labour laws a little bit more, dare I say, British (by that I mean flexible). It is perhaps slightly ironic that the reason the French workers have found it so easy to challenge these reforms though direct action is due to the fact in France, private sector employees can take part in industrial action with almost none of the formalities and conditions which would apply to their British cousins.
Whilst France continues to grapple with a highly regulated labour market and an all-powerful trade union movement, life for trade unions on this side of the Channel is about to get even tougher, now that the controversial Trade Union Bill has finally received Royal Assent.
During the Bill’s long and at times tortuous passage through Parliament, many commentators and trade union activists were quick to point out that Britain already has some of the strictest laws on strike action anywhere in the Western world. It also enjoys an historically very low number of days’ lost to strike action each year, certainly when compared to the 1970s and 1980s. Despite this, British workers and trade unions will soon face a number of additional hurdles which must be overcome before they can participate in industrial action. These will include:
- A tightening of the threshold required on ballots for industrial action. Currently a strike is only unlawful if it is not supported by the majority of those who choose to vote in the ballot. Under the new rules in addition to establishing majority support for a strike it also has to be shown that at least 50% of all eligible voters have taken part in the ballot
- Workers in the public sector will be subject to the additional requirement that at least 40% of those eligible to vote must have voted in favour of the strike action
- An increase from seven to 14 days, being the minimum period of notice which a trade union must give an employer before a strike can begin (unless they agree to vary this)
- A new limit of six months (or up to nine months by agreement) on the validity of strike action before a new ballot must be called
- Additional requirements placed on trade unions in relation to the manner in which pickets are managed and supervised.
It will be interesting to see how events in France play out, and who blinks first in the current stand-off between a government intent on reform on one side and the forces of organised labour on the other. It is certainly the case that the arguments on both sides of the debate carry weight and merit. The fact that a certain European footballing tournament kicks off in France on 10 June 2016 might help to focus their minds on finding a solution sooner rather than later.
This post was edited by Ben Gorner. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.