Workplace rights: General strikes

Where does the law stand on general strikes? Anti-austerity unrest has been common across parts of Europe. Will the UK follow suit?

Last Updated: 19 Jun 2016

Anti-austerity unrest has been sweeping across Greece, Spain and Italy, with European trade union leaders co-ordinating united action for workers to vent steam at spending cuts and job losses. How likely are we to see that level of general strike in the UK?

To organise mass-scale action, British unions must comply with strict legal procedures, including complex rules on balloting and providing sufficient notice to the employer. Union officials often deviate from the prescribed path, giving employers the opportunity to secure an injunction preventing the planned action.

That said, the tide is turning in the unions' favour. Recent court rulings reveal a more relaxed approach to the procedural requirements, limiting the grounds on which employers can challenge strikes.

In addition, unions are increasingly deploying human rights arguments. A case pending before the European Court of Human Rights, brought by the RMT union, will determine whether the right to strike in the UK is 'excessively circumscribed' and in breach of the right to freedom of association. London may yet see the kind of scenes witnessed lately on the streets of Athens.

Michael Burd and James Davies, Lewis Silkin LLP solicitors, email:

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