Calls for strike action from the dental profession

Strike action from dentists is illegal, Michael Watson says

Prominent members of the dental profession should know better than to call for strikes, Michael Watson says.

In a couple of days the British Medical Association’s (BMA’s) ballot for industrial action by junior doctors will close.

Shortly after it will announce if the proposed days for ‘withdrawal of labour’ on 2, 8 and 16 December will go ahead.

The British Dental Association (BDA) has joined the BMA in balloting its hospital members over industrial action.

All this talk of strikes and other action has led some prominent members of the dental profession, who should know better, to call for similar action by general dental practitioners (GDPs) over the NHS dental contract and the General Dental Council (GDC).

Industrial action by junior hospital dentists (as well as doctors) is feasible; such a move by GDPs is not.

Industrial action

To understand why this is, we must delve into history, in particular the legislation brought in by the Thatcher Government in the 1980s, which is still on the statute book.

It has never been repealed because no government has wanted to return to the industrial relations chaos of the 1970s.

Then a shop steward could call out members on a whim (wild-cat strikes), workers could strike even if their company/factory was not affected (sympathy strikes) and they could ‘work to rule’ or for dentists ‘selective acceptance of patients’ without any comeback.

The Thatcher reforms lumped strikes and all other forms of action together.

Only a registered trades union could call for such action, and then only after there had been a ballot of its members.

Any action had to be in the furtherance of a trade dispute, normally with one’s employer, not just because you might have a grievance about your conditions of work.

Any union that calls for industrial action without going through the correct process is liable to pay damages and have its funds sequestered, ie made bankrupt.

Acting illegally

So where does this leave a typical GDP who is browned off with the NHS contract or the GDC and the retention fee they have to pay.

Typically she will be an associate (83% of GDPs are) and in contract not with the NHS or the GDC but with her practice owner, perhaps a corporate.

If she has a dispute with the practice owner she can take industrial action if her union (the BDA) holds a ballot and legitimises this.

Otherwise if she takes any form of industrial action, even if it does not amount to a strike, eg only seeing emergency patients, she will be acting illegally.

In that case the corporate would be within its rights to withhold money and perhaps dismiss her.

That is why I say that it will be senior members of the profession to advocate action, which could result in younger (associate) dentists losing their jobs.

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