Managing strikes in the workplace

By Andrew Willis
12 Apr 2024

Strikes are becoming the norm. Different trade unions have decided to take industrial action to get better pay and work conditions for their members. For employers, however, and the general public, this can cause widespread disruption.

We've put together a short guide to help you manage strikes in your workplace. If you need support or advice, get in touch with one of our experts here.

How do the strikes start?

More often than not, strikes start because employees have become unsatisfied with their job. This could be to do with their pay, working conditions or work environments. Strikes will occur when employees want to force change, sometimes leading to industrial action.

Going on strike isn't a simple process. Industrial action is normally a last resort when negotiations between two parties have reached an impasse. If your business has an employment base that is represented by a trade union then the union may call on its members to strike. This will normally be because they believe that it's an effective route to see a change in their workplace and industry.

Trade union members on the picket line, holding a megaphone.

Who can strike?

Any employee can take part in strike action if it's part of planned industrial action. However, they are only protected from dismissal or disciplinary action if it is official industrial action (authorised by a trade union).

If a trade union has successfully balloted their members then it is classed as officially protected industrial action. This means as an employer you are not permitted to take any action against that employee.

An employee who isn't part of a trade union can also strike. They are protected from dismissal if certain conditions are met. There need to be members from a trade union who have gone through the proper process to hold an official industrial action present.

If employees go on strike after their trade union has unsuccessfully balloted, it's classed as unofficial industrial action. If this is the case and they go on strike, they won't be protected from dismissal or any actions short of it, and the employee wouldn't be able to claim unfair dismissal.

Can I use agency workers to cover striking employees?

Should a strike take place in your organisation, you may wish to look at getting staff in to cover those striking employees.

Since July 2022, employers have been able to use agency staff to cover for striking workers, as long as those agency workers have a suitable skillset and the necessary qualifications to fulfil that role.

What should I do if my employees are taking part in industrial action?

While your employees are taking part in industrial action there are a few things that you can do to help take some of the pressure off certain aspects of your business.

Assess the scale of the issue

It's important to understand the impact the industrial action is going to have on your business. Employers should take into account what resolution you could come to with trade unions and negotiators, and what the cost of the resolution would be.

You can also take into account

  • Is the industrial action official?
  • Which employees are involved?
  • Which parts of your business are likely to be affected?
  • Does your business have a contingency plan in place in the event of industrial action?

Resolve disputes

Before the strike days, it's worth considering what resolutions can be made to stop employees from striking. In any case, employers should be watchful of the effect the work or trade dispute can have on the morale of the team.

Disciplinary Issues

It probably goes without saying that when employees are going on strike there might be tension. This might be greatest, particularly between employees who have decided to strike and employees who have decided not to strike.

This has the potential to lead to bullying and harassment within the workplace. In the lead-up to industrial action, you should remind your employees of the zero-tolerance policy you have in place, and the employee code of conduct.

Keep an open line of communication

Business owners who have employees taking part in industrial action need to make sure that you maintain a good relationship with your employees and trade unions.

This will ultimately help you protect your business.

Throughout the strike, employers should maintain an open channel of communication. It may be beneficial to liaise with a spokesperson for this. This will avoid communications being funnelled through trade unions and negotiators.

Open communication also helps avoid important information about workplace disputes and strike information being lost. This will help to ensure that employees who don't have trade union representation still get the information.

Minimise impact

If your employees go on strike, you will want to ensure that it has a minimum impact on the day-to-day running of your business.

If negotiations have been unsuccessful and employees take part in industrial action, employers may want to encourage employees to work instead of going on strike. This can be confused with employers putting employees under undue pressure to work.

In the event of this happening, employees can claim that their employer subjected employees to an unlawful detriment because of their trade union.

Using Contingent Labour

As we've mentioned, you can use agency staff to cover your employees who are taking part in officially protected industrial action.

Alternatively, when a group of employees are striking, employers can transfer their staff internally to help cover certain areas of the business.

Strike action organised by trade union and balloted workers

What to include in a contingency plan?

In the case of industrial action, employers should put a contingency plan in place. This will ensure that your business is prepared and shouldn't need to take any downtime as a result of the strike.

Compliance with statutory duties

Employers need to be aware of how industrial action affects their employee's statutory rights and employment rights. For example, during a strike, employees are still entitled to statutory sick pay and leave if they take time off sick, unless you can show they are taking sick leave rather than going on strike

Employees are still entitled to their contractual benefits of holiday pay if they have taken annual leave during a strike.

When employees go on strike, they are technically breaking their contract of employment, but this doesn't break their continuous employment. It does however pause it, so any time spent on strike should not count towards the employees overall length of service.

Maintaining Essential Services

Throughout a strike, employers still want to ensure that your business is able to run smoothly. This may include ensuring that their essential services are still able to run while the industrial action is taking place.

Reallocating work to other staff members

This option can have potential issues for employers. Employees can't be forced to undertake alternative work unless it's reasonable for you to request the work to be reallocated.

Whether a request is reasonable can be difficult to define. Employers should take into consideration what the employee currently does and their qualifications. If the request is reasonable and the employee refuses to take on the extra work, you can consider them as being part of the industrial action.

Need expert advice?

Handling strikes in the workplace can be tricky to navigate, Croner's experts are on hand to help you. With a 24/7 HR helpline, we are there no matter what the time of day is.

Croner has a team of award-winning HR consultants who are specialists in their field. We've been helping businesses for over 80 years and our advice line is open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. Why not speak to a Croner expert on 0800 470 2818.


About the Author

Andrew Willis

Andrew Willis is the senior manager of the Litigation and Employment Department and assumes additional responsibility for managing Croner’s office based telephone HR advisory teams, who specialise in employment law, HR and commercial legal advice for small & large organisations across the United Kingdom.





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