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Industrial action in the workplace

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Industrial action is a process that takes place when members of a trade union are disputing working conditions or benefits with their employer and cannot resolve them through negotiations.

This process kicks off when a trade union asks its members whether they wish to take action over the dispute in question, and industrial action usually manifests itself through refusing to turn up for jobs altogether, or refusing to do work in a way that an employment contract specifies.

Two major forms of industrial action are open to employees in a dispute: a strike, where workers refuse to work for the employer, and action short of a strike, where they instead take actions including bans on overtime or 'go-slow' tactics. On rare occasions, an employer can lock out staff during a dispute, in effect stopping them from working or returning .

If a trade union calls for industrial action, members affected by the dispute must take part in the action. By holding a postal ballot, trade unions then discover if people voting will be prepared for a strike or action short of a strike, and can ask both questions.

Such organisations can only call for a strike if the majority of those voting answer "yes" to the first question, as with industrial action short of a strike. If both questions garner a majority verdict, it is then up to the union to decide the action it takes to demonstrate issues with jobs.

People associated with these groups must be allowed to vote in secret without interference from officials, though most trade unions tell affected members about the nature of the dispute and the reasons why they believe industrial action ought to be carried out. Additionally, a trade union cannot discipline a person for choosing to avoid taking part in industrial action. If they are, or they are harassed for crossing the picket line and continuing with their jobs, they can complain to an Employment Tribunal.

Industrial action is only a last resort and should only be carried out if it is no longer possible to resolve the dispute through any other means. This is because it is ultimately costly and damaging to both sides, whether it is through loss of wages or the productivity that is hurt by the lack of jobs being carried out.

Sometimes, unions bring in outside help to help the issue get solved. Advisors from the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) are often asked to help employers and trade unions reach a common goal that is good for both sides.

This happened most recently in a row between the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and BBC regarding the pensions of many workers at the broadcaster. NUJ-affiliated employees walked out for 48 hours, forcing the Beeb to call in freelancers to cover major radio stations and TV coverage, most notably BBC News.

However, the NUJ was able to agree terms and conditions through Acas, reaching a deal in principle in early December and avoiding a second bout of industrial action.


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