Charities, like any other employer, are not inherently immune from strike action. Labour laws apply to all employers, including charities, and give employees the right to strike as a means of collective bargaining.

It is worth noting that the nature of work in the charitable sector, which often involves providing essential services or support to vulnerable communities, may influence the perception and impact of strike action. Strikes in such organisations can have potentially significant consequences for those who rely on their services. As a result, there are usually additional legal or ethical considerations that come into play when considering strike action in the charitable sector.

St Mungo’s strike action

In the last two weeks, St Mungo’s homeless charity hit the headlines when workers voted to extend their month long strike indefinitely (from 27 June 2023), due to failed negotiation talks between Unite the Union and management. Unite, which represents 800 workers at the charity balloted over 500 workers across southern England including in London, Bristol, Brighton, Oxford, Bournemouth and Reading.

Founded in 1969, St Mungo’s had a total income of more than £118m last year, according to accounts filed by the charity. Its expenditure was also £118m.

The charity has 1,550 employees, 10 trustees and 1,297 volunteers, with five members of staff on a salary of more than £100,000.

According to Unite, St Mungo’s has failed to resolve a pay dispute going back to 2021. The charity has increased its pay increase offer from 2.25% (previously put forward) to 3.7%. However, in the face of a cost of living crisis, there is concern that many of the charity’s frontline workers will struggle to pay their bills.

The charity says it has already applied a rise of 1.75% to salaries in the year 2021/2022, but that Unite has asked for a backdated and consolidated rise of 10%, which would leave the charity’s work unsustainable in the future, given the depletion of the charity’s reserves in the last 12 months. The charity has already implemented pay increases and made emergency funds available to staff due to the cost of living crisis.

What should employers do when faced with action from employees?

1. Engage in open and transparent communication with employees to understand their concerns and issues. Encourage dialogue through trade unions (if you recognise any) and ensure that there are appropriate channels for employees to express their views. Remember that for some pay is not the only means of resolving disputes. Hours of work, supervision, and access to the charities other benefits may help provide a solution

2. Explore options for negotiation and mediation to find common ground and resolve any disputes. This can involve engaging with employee representatives or trade unions.

3. Assess your organisation’s policies, practices and working conditions to identify any areas that may be contributing to employee dissatisfaction. Make necessary changes or improvements to address these concerns.

4. Consult with legal advisers who can provide specialist advice in relation to trade union law to ensure compliance and to understand the rights and obligations of both your charity and your employees.

5. Explore alternative methods of resolving conflicts, such as arbitration or conciliation, which can provide a neutral and impartial platform for reaching a resolution.

6. Prioritise employee engagement and well-being by fostering a positive work environment, providing opportunities for professional development, and ensuring fair pay and benefits.

What is clear from the action at St Mungo’s is that it is crucial for charities to approach employee action with empathy, respect and a commitment to finding mutually beneficial solutions. Simply taking for granted the employees’ support for the objectives of the charity is unlikely to be enough. However, by addressing concerns and working towards a resolution, charities can maintain a positive work environment and continue to deliver their important services.

In the event that your charity is faced with collective grievances or threatened strike action in relation to pay or terms and conditions of employment, please do get in touch and we can help navigate you through these difficult times that can significantly impact on your charity’s services.

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Emma is an experienced employment lawyer acting for a range of clients including public sector, manufacturing and engineering, care providers, and insolvency practitioners.

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Published: 17th July 2023
Area: Charities

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