LRD Booklets May 2017

Law at Work 2017



This 29th edition of Law at Work is being published at a time of significant political and economic uncertainty, following the UK’s vote on 23 June 2016 to leave the European Union (EU) and the unexpected announcement of a general election in June 2017. Workers’ rights are at risk under these conditions and trade unionists need to have a good understanding of those rights. 

Prime Minister Theresa May has promised that the minimum statutory rights currently available to workers under EU laws will be preserved after the UK leaves the EU, while she remains in office. But as the TUC states, “as trade unionists, we like promises, but we prefer guarantees”. The TUC wants to see the government build a proper UK-wide industrial strategy, using public procurement to support those employers that provide decent working conditions and invest in workforce skills, and for workers to be given a stronger voice – with workers on company boards and union reps on industrial bodies such as the new Institute for Apprenticeships. 

Recent political developments are set against a backdrop of continued government hostility to trade unions and a determination to impede their power to represent workers, manifested most recently by the Trade Union Act 2016 (TUA 16). The TUA 16, key parts of which became law in March 2017, is part of a strategy to undermine collective bargaining and coincides with on-going attacks on public service pay and other terms and conditions, most recently redundancy terms (see Chapter 11). With its onerous strike thresholds and extra barriers to the freedom to picket, the Act represents a fundamental attack on the human right to strike (see Chapter 6). It is also an assault on unions’ ability to organise, self-regulate and engage in wider political campaigning (see Chapter 5). 

Paradoxically, data from the Office for National Statistics shows that strikes remain at a historically low level, notwithstanding recent high profile examples, such as the junior doctors’ strike and the industrial action on the Southern Rail network. At the same time, wages have stagnated since 2008, with Bank of England governor Mark Carney describing the period as “the first lost decade since the 1860s”. Job insecurity is also commonplace, and in March 2017, the number of people on zero hours contracts topped one million for the first time. 

Despite this bleak picture, there is some positive news for the union movement to celebrate. Since Law at Work was last published, unions have continued to lead the way in challenging abuses in the gig economy, or as the GMB puts it, “old fashioned exploitation under new-fangled jargon”. Alongside campaigning and strike action, there have been ground-breaking tribunal rulings supported by unions, including the landmark ruling on bogus self-employment against transport service provider Uber. The ruling, backed by the GMB, is expected to have a “hugely positive impact” on thousands of workers (see page 42). 

In March 2017, UNISON’s judicial review challenge to the tribunal fees regime reached the Supreme Court, with judgment expected in late 2017 (see page 24). “It cannot be right”, commented general secretary Dave Prentis, “that unscrupulous bosses are escaping punishment because people simply don’t have the money to pursue a case”. Whatever the legal outcome, the political implications for the broader campaign against fees are likely to be significant.

Also very important is a new ruling secured by Unite members at car electronics company Kostal, in which an employment tribunal decided that the law against inducements to abandon collective bargaining extends to situations where employers make offers direct to the workforce during an on-going pay negotiation with a recognised union (see page 149). And pilots union BALPA has won a key ruling in the Court of Appeal against budget airline Jet2 on the scope of collective bargaining under the statutory recognition procedure (see page 157). 

As well as strategic litigation, unions have been active up and down the country taking cases to protect the rights of individual members. 

About Law at Work 2017 

Law at Work is designed as an essential tool for negotiators, reps and members, and as a means for trade unionists to keep up-to-date with change. This revised and updated edition will provide the basic information reps need to understand the law, to make their case as clearly as possible to their employer and to win further victories for their members through negotiation and persuasion. Law at Work is backed up by an advice line available to affiliated organisations.

Unlike most other employment law guides, LRD’s Law at Work examines the law from the perspective of trade unions and workers. While not designed to enable an individual or union rep to take a claim right through the court process, it indicates where the relevant law can be found, highlights what has changed and what has stayed the same, and provides up-to-date examples of the law in action.
The LRD’s Case Law at Work series of booklets provides case summaries in greater detail and can be read as a companion to this booklet. 

Most trade unions offer their members a legal advice service and any member or rep contemplating taking a legal case should contact their union first. In some unions, tribunal cases will be handled internally at district, regional or even head office level. This booklet does not contain individual legal advice and must not be relied on as such. 

Law at Work 2017 refers to the legislation as it applies to England, Wales and Scotland (although there are some variations in Scotland). However, many of the principles also apply in Northern Ireland, which has its own legislation but with a similar structure. Two recent differences worth highlighting are that there are no tribunal fees in Northern Ireland, and the Trade Union Act 2016 will not be implemented in Northern Ireland.