The trade union movement is in the midst of a renaissance.

The spike in support follows wages falling at their fastest rate since records began and a wave of unrest that’s touched all corners of industry from refuse workers to barristers, call centre staff to rail workers, Amazon workers to journalists.

Teachers, nurses and a whole load of other industries are expected to strike in the coming months.

Strikes are now happening at such prolific rate that talk of a general strike is at the forefront of political debate. An event the UK hasn’t seen since 1926.


The problem is that your right to strike is in danger – especially for public sector workers and workers in critical industries.

Both Tory leadership candidates have committed during the hustings debates to stamp out trade union members right to strike, which I imagine is more than just a threat given they recently legislated for businesses to replace striking staff with agency workers.

A move that trampled over devolution by overriding section 2 of the Trade Union (Wales) Act 2017.

Next up on the chopping block is strike action. A right won through blood, sweat and tears.

Before the introduction of the Trade Union Act 1871, there were various pieces of legislation that made strikes illegal. It was the introduction of that Act that provided legal recognition to trade unions and their right to organise.

So, what do we mean by the right to strike?

Well, there isn’t an automatic legal right to strike in the UK. To go on strike a recognised trade union in your workplace must follow the conditions set out in the Trade Union Labour Relations (Consolidations) Act 1992 – TULRCA for short.

To be recognised in the workplace your union must gain voluntarily recognition from the business, or it must have over 50% of workers signed up as members, at which point it can apply to the Central Arbitration Committee to force the company in question to recognise it.

By gaining recognition in the workplace the union can undertake collective bargaining negotiations and bring disputes to the company on behalf of its members, such as asking for improved pay and conditions. If the dispute isn’t resolved, it can ballot its members on whether they want to go on strike.  

For trade unions to run a lawful ballot they must send all members effected by the dispute a ballot to complete and return in the post, reach the required threshold in terms of turnout, give the correct amount of days’ notice to the business before going on strike if enough members vote in favour and meet a whole host of other conditions.

If the trade union slips up with any of these conditions, the company they’re in dispute with can bring a claim for damages against them.

Pre-David Cameron, the process to successfully ballot members was easier. But in the dying days of his government the Trade Union Act 2016 (TUA) was introduced.

The Act increased the number of members required to turnout and vote to 50%. In cases where members work in important public services, 40% must vote in favour of strike action for it to go ahead.

That’s a high bar. To add a little context, our current Senedd was decided on a turnout of 46% – a record for our parliamentary elections.

Despite the high threshold, the most recent ballot by the RMT had a turnout of 71% with 89% voting in favour. The recent CWU ballot saw 75% of BT workers turnout and 95% voting in favour. Huge numbers.

The TUA also set out a commitment at section 4 to trial online balloting for trade union members and a subsequent government-commissioned review by Sir Ken Knight recommended online voting to be introduced. But it continues to be banned.

Why you ask? Because the UK government claim they’re worried this method of voting is open to corruption.

Oh, I know – the irony.

The hypocrisy doesn’t just stop there. Tory members will vote online for the next Prime Minister, proving it has nothing to do with fears of fraudulent activity and everything to do with disempowering workers. Another case of one rule for them and another rule for the rest of us.

A few final points before I get off my soapbox.

If workers vote in favour of strike action, they cannot be dismissed. If they are dismissed, they may have a claim for unfair dismissal.

Where workers take part in ‘wildcat strike action’ by staging, for instance, a ‘sit-in’ like Amazon warehouse staff have recently, they leave themselves open to their employer claiming they’ve breached the terms of their contract.   

But in the case of those Amazon workers, they are highly unlikely to be dismissed on mass for staging a sit-in. There’s a time and a place, as the saying goes – and the poultry offer of a 35p pay increase is absolutely the time for those Amazon workers to tell Jeff Bezos he’s taking the ****.

If workers join a lawful picket line, their pay will take a hit. But to improve pay and conditions for the long-term that hit to the pocket is often considered worth it. Just ask the GMB, CWU, RMT and other union members who have voted overwhelmingly to strike.

And it works. Members of a trade union are better paid than non-unionised workers. That’s why the Tories continue to attack unions.

Without them we wouldn’t have holiday pay, sick pay, maternity pay, the minimum wage, equality laws, overtime pay, workplace health and safety, the weekends off and so much more.

So join a union, support the strikes, and tell this god awful Tory government that enough is enough.

Jonathan Williams is a solicitor at Watkins and Gunn. This column is not the opinion of Watkins and Gunn and is not to be considered as legal advice.

If you require legal advice, please visit