Industrial action

What is industrial action?

Industrial action can include strike action (which is any concerted stoppage of work) or action short of strike action such as ‘go-slows’ or ‘working to rule’.

Is it against the law to strike?

Although there is no positive legal right to strike in the UK, strike action organised by a trade union is legal provided some tough conditions are met.

For example:

  • The union must have conducted a lawful ballot of all the members it believes will be called upon to take part.
  • The action must be over a trade dispute between workers and their employer over an issue like terms or conditions of employment and as defined in s.244 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.
  • The general secretary or someone else authorised by the union’s rules, must authorise any industrial action.
  • The person named on the ballow paper must make a call for action before industrial action can take place.
  • There are very strict rules about the ballot and the notice that must be given to the employer about the action.


Industrial action is a last resort. UNISON always tries to negotiate and bargain for its members before pursuing industrial action.

Picket lines

A picket line is when members meet at the workplace to increase awareness and support for their cause. Picketing members may also tell other workers about the problem in the workplace.

During a picket line you are allowed to persuade workers, including substitute workers and delivery people, to stop interacting with the business. This must be done peacefully, as criminal law still applies to picket lines.

You aren’t allowed to use threatening behaviour or force to prevent others from attending work, cause criminal damage, or prevent police officers from carrying out their duties.

The police, in Great Britain, can use special powers, such as obtaining an order prohibiting the picket, if the picket contains more than 20 people and they believe it may result in serious disruption to the life of the community.

Dismissal for taking part in industrial action

It is automatically unfair to dismiss someone who’s taken part in any lawful industrial action within 12 weeks of the action.

Can an employer deduct your wages for taking part in industrial action?

Yes, although an employer cannot deduct more than one fifth of weekly pay for a day’s strike action.

Key facts
  • Industrial action occurs when members of a trade union organise into a group that either refuses to work, or refuses to work in the way employers want.
  • You should only take industrial action with the support of UNISON.
  • Industrial action can involve a strike or action short of a strike.
  • You must remain within the law while picketing.


Industrial action

  • Am I breaking my contract by taking strike action?

    Almost all effective industrial action is a breach of your contract of employment.

    However, UNISON will only ask you to strike after a lawful statutory ballot. The law protects workers from dismissal while taking part in lawful industrial action at any time within 12 weeks of the start of action. Depending on the circumstances, dismissal may also be unfair if it takes place later.

  • Are my pension contributions affected if I take strike action?

    In some strikes, particularly short ones, employers may not withhold superannuation contributions – so taking in strike action has not generally affected pensionsm though this is a possibility.

    If your employer decides to dock your pay for the day of action, the employers do not have to pay pension contributions during that period and you will not have paid your portion of contribution for that day.

    The impact on your final pension would be extremely small but you might want to consider replacing the lost contribution.

    It is possible, with your employer’s agreement, to pay a sum equal to the employee and employer contribution and receive full credit for the day’s absence and continue to have full cover.

    Any member wishing to do this must inform their employer in writing before the absence takes place.

  • Are there rules and laws on picketing?

    Picketing is a legal activity to peacefully persuade members not to go in to work.

    Pickets should wear an armband indicating they are on duty. Placards and posters should be displayed stating “Official Picket.”

    Guidelines on picketing are set out in the union’s industrial action handbook.

    Industrial Action Handbook 2009 [pdf]

    The law says that picketing should be carried out at or near an entrance or exit from a site at which the picket works.

    When others who are not in dispute come into work or use these entrances or exits, pickets must not interfere with them.

  • Do I have to strike if there is a vote for action?

    As a member of a democratic union we would hope that you would participate in a strike if there is a vote for strike action.

    You cannot be forced to do so, but it is part of belonging to a democratic union in which decisions are made collectively.

    We recognise that taking strike action is very serious, which is why UNISON asks you and every other member to observe the strike, if called.

    Every member who does not undermines our bargaining power and makes it harder for us to protect all our members.

  • How do I initiate industrial action?

    Speak to your UNISON rep. They will identify whether a case for industrial action is possible or beneficial.

  • I am facing redundancy. Won’t going on strike make it more likely I am made redundant?

    Many members might in a similar position and will share your concerns.

    But rermember: employees are protected from dismissal during the first 12 weeks of any lawful, balloted, official industrial action.

    Any dismissal for taking part in industrial action in this 12-week period, regardless of how long the employee has worked, or their age, is automatically unfair unless a tribunal decides the dismissal was not to do with the industrial action.

    Employers know this and, in the most part, are not about to risk breaking the law. But management may attempt to isolate – or indeed intimidate – individuals or small groups with the view to encouraging strike breaking.

    There may be threats concerning your careers or of disciplinary action. If this does happen, make sure you report this to your UNSION branch officers in the first instance.

    They will take this very seriously and act upon it.

    Note that there are time limits for making a complaint – normally three months less one day – so let your branch know as soon as you receive a threat concerning your career or disciplinary action.

  • I’m in my first 12 months of employment – what are my rights?

    Employees are protected from dismissal during the first 12 weeks of any lawful, balloted, official industrial action. Any dismissal for taking part in industrial action in the 12-week period, regardless of how long the employee has worked, or their age, is automatically unfair unless a tribunal decides the dismissal was not to do with the industrial action.

  • If I strike, will that make my service be more (or less) likely to be outsourced?

    It is difficult to anticipate the actions of all employers and there is unfortunately a lot of outsourcing going on anyway.

    UNISON has members working on outsourced contracts and has recognition with most large contractors. And of course, potential bidders for services may not find a strong staff group that is willing to stand up for their rights so appealing to bid for.

  • My employer is saying that a one-day strike would be seen as a break in service and that my continuity of service would be broken. Is this true?

    No. Your continuous employment is treated as ‘postponed’ during a strike.

    This means that the period you were on strike for will not count toward your continuous employment, but it does not break the continuity of your period of employment.

  • What if I am on sick leave?

    Workers who are absent on sick leave when a stoppage of work starts retain their right to statutory sick pay during the period of industrial action.

    If an employee reports sick on the day the action starts, the employer can be expected to make their own judgment as to whether they should be regarded as on sick leave or on strike.

    For the purposes of statutory sick pay payable in the eight weeks after a period of strike action, average earnings will reflect the lower earnings during the period leading up to the illness.

  • What if I am part time?

    UNISON believes that any deduction of pay must be pro rata for part time staff. The deduction must be only for your contracted hours.

  • What if I am pregnant, in my last year of service or receiving state benefits?

    It is common practice for these categories of staff to be exempted if they will suffer longer-term financial loss. Speak to your branch.

  • What if I don’t want to strike?

    If UNISON decides to call for a strike, you do not have to strike as well, even though it may be in your best interests to do so.

  • What if I have external work commitments, on the day of the strike?

    If your commitments are part of your normal work for your employer, you should not attend them.

  • What if I take annual leave?

    UNISON does not regard anyone who takes annual leave on strike days to be taking part in the strike action.

    If you can, we would like you to postpone your leave so that you can take part in any strike action.

  • Who decides on industrial action?

    UNISON members decide whether to strike or not by voting. Before any action is carried out, UNISON will ballot members on the possibility of industrial action.

    UNSION’s industrial action committee has final responsibility for approving and overseeing all industrial action.

  • Will I lose my job if I engage in industrial action?

    If you engage in lawful industrial action and you are dismissed in circumstances where the reason or principal reason for your dismissal is that you took part in lawful industrial action, then your dismissal will be treated as automatically unfair if:

    • it is within 12 weeks of the action starting or
    • you stopped the action within 12 weeks or
    • your employer didn’t take reasonable procedural steps to resolve the issue.
  • Will I lose pay and if so how much?

    Yes, we can expect employers to refuse to pay staff taking industrial action.  The law makes it clear that employers can deduct pay when staff are on strike.  However, where pay deductions are made these should at all times be reasonable.

    If employers decide to deduct pay from those taking strike action, your branch will seek agreement at local level for deductions of no more than 1/7th of weekly income (ie 365th of annual income) for a single whole day of strike action. Also that deductions are pro rata’d for people who work part-time or term-time.

  • Will I still have to strike if I voted No?

    If the majority of the people balloted vote Yes and a strike is called, we would hope you would join your trade union colleagues by participating fully in the industrial action, in line with UNISON’s democratic decision-making process.