Anti-austerity strikes have swept across Southern Europe today with workers in Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy downing tools. Schools and hospitals have closed. Airports have ground to a halt. Trains have stopped running. Angered by the never-ending public spending cuts and job losses, the European Trade Union Confederation coordinated this day of united action to allow their members to vent their steam. This begs the question: can the same happen here in the UK?
In short, the answer is yes (to an extent!). We witnessed this for ourselves this summer when our GPs and hospital doctors went on strike over pension reforms. That said, organising the kind of ‘general strikes’ we’ve witnessed in Europe today is unlikely. To organise mass-scale action, British trade unions have to comply with the strict procedures contained in the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 (“TULRCA”). All too often unions deviate from this complex procedure – which includes holding a compliant ballot and providing sufficient notice to the employer - giving employers the opportunity to successfully oppose and prevent the planned action.
However, recent decisions indicate that the tide seems to be turning. We have seen the courts take a more relaxed approached to TULRCA and not insist that unions follow the procedures in their totality. The Court of Appeal’s decision in RMT v Serco 2011 is a good example of this; the Court of Appeal limited the number of grounds upon which employers can challenge strike action and suggested that they were not concerned with minor breaches of the procedures.
In addition, trade unions have started to rely on the human rights argument to achieve its aims. Recently the RMT has commenced a challenge to TULRCA’s strict procedures on collective action before the European Court of Human Rights. In its submission to the Court, the RMT claims that ‘the right to strike is excessively circumscribed’ in Britain in breach of article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to freedom of association, including the right to form and be members of trade unions.
Even though it’s unlikely we will witness the same scenes occurring elsewhere in Europe today (well, for now at least...!), their impact in Britain can be felt, most noticeably in the sky. In particular, striking Greek and Spanish baggage handlers and check-in staff have caused huge headaches for air traffic control officers up and down the country: numerous flights from the UK to the affected countries have been delayed or postponed, with easyJet alone reporting cancellations of approximately 30 flights. Moreover, today’s action on the continent inspired a small protest in London over the dismissal of 28 Crossrail workers.
We eagerly await the developments in this area – especially the European Court of Human Rights’ decision – to see if we can expect the streets of London to form the background to the kind of action we have been seeing on the streets of Athens in the near future…