Research Output
‘Organising from home’: Beating the Trade Union Act 2016 in a global pandemic/recession
  In 2017, the Trade Union Act 2016 (the Act) became law in the UK, an Act extending several decades of anti-union measures, but notable for the setting of a 50% threshold in statutory ballots. Further, as there is little prospect of the Act being repealed until at least 2024, unions in wanting to build bargaining capacity, especially during ‘Covid’ times, appear to have few options other than to engage with the Act.

In the wake of the Act a range of research emerged, for example, likening the Act to ‘kettling’ the unions (Tuckman, 2018), breaching of international human rights law (Ewing and Hendy, 2016), reinforcing record low levels of strike activity (Gall and Kirk, 2018), constraining workers and unions bargaining activities (Ford and Novitz, 2016), and, reducing facilities so that lay organisers cannot effectively represent members (Lane, 2017). Further research considered how unions may diversify their bargaining strategies, including increased prospects of using unlawful industrial action, ‘leverage campaigns’ and ‘citizenship bargaining’ (Darlington and Dobson, 2015). A limited amount of literature, however, is more bullish, pointing towards opportunities for union renewal and revitalisation under the Act (e.g., Porter et al., 2017).

The proposed paper sits within the latter of such literature, in that it represents a case study of taking on the Act head on, but also adapting and refining tactics to suit emergent/inhospitable contexts. In short, the paper seeks to demonstrate how it is possible to beat the Act in the most inhospitable of circumstances, i.e., extreme anti-union legislation combined with a global pandemic/recession, forcing organisers to ‘organise from home’ in a large-scale redundancy situation. How the Act was beaten by a branch of the University and Colleges Union (UCU) in late 2020 is approached as follows. First, key literature contemplating effective and contemporary union organising and mobilising is discussed (e.g., Simms and Holgate, 2010; Holgate et al., 2018). Linking in with such discussions is a consideration of literature focused on how new and traditional information technologies (e.g., via smartphone and email) can be used to effectively organise and mobilise memberships (e.g., Pliskin et al., 1997; Wood, 2015). The methodology section details the case, plus details of the main method, action research based on people (union people) working together to address key problems in their organisations (Reason and Bradbury-Huang, 2007). Following methodology is a presentation of key findings, analysed through the lens of best practice in union organising, mobilisation and communication. The findings section reveals key actions taken by a campaign team made up of a Campaign Lead, a Branch Administrator, plus two Organisers, deploying a range of ‘home grown’ and emergent methods of encouraging and measuring voting rates during live ballots; a campaign resulting in a 66% turnout.

The paper makes a range of contributions, not least filling a clear gap in empirical and best practice related to beating the Act. The paper ends with a reflection of the limitations of the organising, mobilising and communication activities associated with the case, but in doing so suggests pathways to developing organising, mobilising and communication activities for different contexts, not least large and diverse bargaining units than explored in the paper.

  • Type:

    Conference Paper (unpublished)

  • Date:

    13 July 2021

  • Publication Status:


  • Funders:

    Heriot Watt University


Richards, J., & Ellis, V. (2021, July). ‘Organising from home’: Beating the Trade Union Act 2016 in a global pandemic/recession. Paper presented at British Universities Industrial Relations Association (BUIRA), Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester


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