Sorry for the lack of posts here this week. As I explained a while ago, I’m involved in a big corporate re-organisation at the moment and, as those of you with experience of such things will know, when you’re not in meetings you’re sitting in a room bashing stuff out on a secure PC. Hence, no blogging. I didn’t expect this project to take up so much of my time but you know how these things go.
Anyway, as a result I have been itching to sound off about all sorts of things so here goes.
First up is the sacking of 647 workers at Lindsey Oil Refinery (down from 900 in the earlier reports). When this dispute first made the news in January I surmised that we might see a lot more disputes like this. Now, it appears, things are going to get nasty, with mass dismissals and sympathy strikes.
It is twenty years since Britain has seen large scale disputes and employer counter-action on this scale. The newspaper reports reflect this. Few of them contain the critical facts. For example, many of the reports describe the workers as “contract workers”, which implies that they are self-employed or working through agencies. Were that the case, they would not have had employment contracts and could therefore have been laid off at will.
However, as far as I can tell, and this still isn’t totally clear from the reports, the workers were actually employees of the contractor companies working on the site. This is important because, if it is true, it means that the workers have more rights. It also seems, though, that these actions are not ‘protected disputes’ under the law
Few managers much under the age of 40 will have had reason to know the law on dismissal for industrial action. Even the old farts like me that used to understand it have forgotten most of it. Like all things, if you don’t use it, you lose it.
Most of the big disputes involving large scale strikes, sympathy action, lock-outs and mass dismissals were over by 1990. Stories like those in the papers this morning evoke memories of Maggie Thatcher, Miami Vice and Wham blaring out of open-topped Golf GTis
But for those too young to remember all that, Freshfields (which sounds like a supermarket but is actually a law firm) has provided this handy guide to the law on industrial action.
All strikes are effectively a breach of contract but employees and unions are protected from legal action and dismissal provided that the industrialaction falls within certain rules. The strike at Lindsey and the sympathy action by other groups of workers around the country does not fall within these rules. Unofficial action and sympathy strikes do not count as ‘protected industrial action’. That’s why the employers will probably get away, at least legally, with dismissing the workers.
Managers, HR professionals and trade union activists would do well to read up on the difference between protected and unprotected industrial action because we are going to see a lot more of this sort of thing. Earlier this week the CIPD’s Chief Economist John Phillpot warned of 350,000 public sector jobs being cut and of an ongoing ‘workplace guerrilla war’ as the employee relations climate deteriorates and industrial unrest increases. At one time the thought of the government playing hardball with striking civil servants in the way that Total’s contractors have with their employees would have been unthinkable. But with the public sector deficit as it is, who can say what might happen in the next few years? Both sides might start fighting dirty.
Up until recently,many people said that large-scale strikes, like boom-and-bust, had been consigned to history. It looks as though they spoke too soon. If you are likely to be anywhere near an industrial dispute, I suggest you take some time to read up on some long forgotten law.