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Trade Union Law & Industrial Action

Published: 4th April, 2022

Our current mandate for industrial action in the name of the Four Fights and in defence of USS Pensions expires on 3 May. As you know, we are reballoting members in order to prolong the action. This is necessary due to the restrictions imposed by the Trade Union Act 2016. The law places UCU (and all unions) under extremely strict obligations, and is inherently anti-union in its stance. Here’s a brief introduction to the law and how it impacts us.

What is the Trade Union Act?

The Trade Union Act 2016 is legislation which restricts how and why trade unions can take industrial action, fund political parties and conduct their duties. In terms of our current disputes, it impacts our ability to take action as our current mandate expires soon. This makes it necessary for us to conduct a reballot to prolong our action. Since 2016 there are more limitations and red tape in place which makes holding employers to account increasingly difficult.


The legislation stipulates that in order to call a strike, members must be balloted and we must achieve a 50% voter turnout in order to validate the results. If we miss the threshold by one vote, even if 100% of those who voted, voted in favour of industrial action, then the action could not legally take place. There are no such threshold limitations for national and local elections (for instance, the recent by-election for Evington ward achieved a turnout of 31.92%).

We are also limited to conducting postal ballots. Trade union members cannot vote in person or online. It is believed that this is a more cumbersome method of collecting votes, and can impact the ability of unions to take action.

Furthermore, whenever we ballot we have to tell the employer how many members we are balloting in each department broken down by “job role” (e.g academic, research, learning support etc). If we provide inaccurate information, the employer may legally challenge the ballot. That is why it is very important for members to keep their information up to date via MyUCU.


Votes in support of strike action are only valid for six months, which is why we are reballoting to extend the mandate for our current round of action.

Why take industrial action?

Strike action is undertaken as a last resort. Employers hold most of the power. Unions have the power to strike in order to prevent the exploitation of employees. They act as a powerful bargaining tool to get a better outcome for workers. However, as the law makes achieving strike action difficult, the power of unions is reduced, and the exploitation of the workforce can be more likely.

The Law & picketing

Before any strike action we must inform the employer at least 2 weeks prior to the action, otherwise it is illegal. There are also specific laws about the nature of picketing. Each picket line must have a nominated supervisor. The name of this supervisor must be passed on to the police prior to any action, and they must be easily identifiable on picket lines.

You will see that the law restricts our ability to partake in industrial action, and that there are many hoops we must jump through in order to use strike action to hold employers to account throughout our various disputes. This is why it is important for us to demonstrate widespread collective power and succeed in achieving a renewed mandate for action, in order to continue pressurising University leaders to make substantial and significant changes to improve our working lives and working conditions.