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Strike action: staffing implications

BY Steve Briggs
Employment law
BG Purple

The biggest strike the UK has ever experienced is looming on Wednesday 30 November, triggered by the government’s plans to reduce public sector employees’ pensions.

Workers will also have to work longer to earn maximum pension payments. The unions involved estimate that around three million workers will take part, overshadowing the estimated two million who took part in the 1926 general strike.  

The impact will be felt across all sectors as state schools and nurseries close for the day, forcing millions of parents to make alternative childcare arrangements, or stay off work to look after their children.  

Employers need to be ready to cope with the likelihood that significant staff numbers are likely to be absent on 30 November. When making their plans, they need to bear in mind the damage that could be inflicted on employee relations if they take an inflexible approach. The four main options open to employers are as follows:  

  1. Permit staff to take a day’s paid holiday;
  2. Permit staff who can, to work from home;
  3. Allow workers to take a day off with pay, subject to them making up the hours lost over a few weeks; or
  4. Permit staff to take a day’s unpaid leave.

It’s still possible that the strikes may be called off for further negotiations, or that concessions may be made by the government that are sufficient to meet the unions’ demands, but both of these look increasingly unlikely as each day passes.  

Although the action is limited to one day this time, the unions’ determination to protect their members pension rights may well lead to further, longer stoppages in the months ahead. It’s a high stakes confrontation, and neither side is likely to be willing to shift their position significantly.  

What may determine the course of the next few months is the response of the workforce to the strike calls. Picket lines are likely to be in place in a large number of locations, and unions not known for their militancy, such as the First Division Association which represents most senior civil servants, have called their members out. The Scottish government is planning to keep Holyrood open on the 30th, but MSPs will have to cross picket lines to attend!  

If strike numbers reach the three million prediction, the unions will be encouraged to dig their heels in firmly. If the numbers are significantly less, the government is likely to press ahead with its plans with more confidence.

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