Climate change protests: How should employers respond to employees on strike?

A mass workplace walkout is on the cards for 20 September, with millions set to join in the global climate strike.

This follows a recent spate of strikes held by students in response to inaction over climate issues.

Now, in the UK’s first general strike since 1926, the so-called ‘climate strike generation’, led by teenage activist Greta Thunberg, are urging the working generation to join in what is anticipated to be the world’s biggest climate mobilisation. It will be the first time school children and adults will combine forces to collectively protest against climate change fears.

As an employer, you may be understandably concerned about the potential fallout of employees abandoning post. In this article, we explain the legal options available should your staff choose to participate.

Is it legal for employees to join in a strike over climate change concerns?

The Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 sets out very specific rules as to when it is legally permissible for an employee to take part in a strike, none of which are satisfied in this case.

Fundamentally, for an employee to be protected against legal action for breach of contract, a strike or other form of industrial action taken must be in relation to a dispute between workers and their employer. In other words, employees cannot legally strike for political reasons.

Often, whether a strike is a political protest or a genuine trade dispute can be difficult to establish, such as in cases where political decisions directly affect a person’s terms and conditions of employment; however, there would appear to be little ambiguity in relation to Friday’s climate strike, which is a political gesture aimed at forcing politicians to take the global climate crisis seriously and to raise awareness of the risks posed by climate change.

However, while this is not a traditional trade union activity, the TUC demonstrated support for the cause back in August, when it passed a motion at its congress to call a 30-minute workday “solidarity stoppage” with the global school student strike on 20 September.

So what options are available to employers?

While some companies may be accepting of, or even encourage, such activism, there will be others who will see the strike as a threat to business. Depending on your stance, there are a number of ways you may wish to respond:

1. Take punitive action.

It may not be a popular approach, however, from a purely legal standpoint, if one of your employees was to go on strike during this protest, you would be entitled to take disciplinary action against them. Refusing to attend work, or leaving without permission, could potentially constitute gross misconduct, which may result in dismissal without notice or a payment in lieu. However, much will depend on the particular circumstances of each case, so it’s always a good idea to take advice from an Employment Law specialist before acting. You should also give some thought to the potential reputational consequences of taking a heavy-handed approach and weigh up whether adopting a more flexible stance may be beneficial.

2. Meet in the middle.

While some businesses may be able to afford to let employees take the day off, this is not likely to be an option for smaller businesses, such as independent shops and restaurants and small offices. In this scenario, one option is to treat the climate strike in much the same way as other national events, such as the World Cup, by suggesting that if employees wish to take time off, they book this as annual leave. Alternatively, if you are sympathetic to the cause, you may choose to allow unpaid leave for those who wish to attend.

3. Suggest alternatives.

Rather than risk a mass exodus, you may wish to suggest that employees use their lunch breaks to join a local demonstration or that if they wish to donate to a climate change charity, such as the WWF or Greenpeace, you will match their donation. Another option may be to organise your own fundraising event to allow employees to show their support while at work, without too much down time or disruption.

4. Show solidarity.

On the other end of the spectrum, some employers are recognising the benefits of actively engaging with social issues and marking themselves as a socially and environmentally conscious company. Encouraging employees to take part rather than reprimanding them for it, and considering how you can get involved with the cause as a business, is likely to reflect positively on your image and make you more attractive to customers and prospective employees.

Whether you’re against employees taking part or open to a more relaxed approach, it’s a good idea to make your position clear ahead of time. If you suspect that employees intend to take part in the strike, you may wish to consider issuing a memo to all staff setting out how the company will treat employees who take part.

James Tamm

Director of Legal Services

Expert Comment

It will be up to individual employers to decide how to react to the strike. However, I would recommend setting your stall out, however briefly, ahead of time – especially if you intend to take punitive action against anyone who fails to show for work, or leaves without permission. In addition, you would normally be entitled to withhold pay from anyone who is absent without permission on Friday.