In what some are seeing as a veiled challenge to David Cameron, Boris Johnson has attacked the trade unions. He is demanding a 50 percent threshold for strike ballots, further restrictions on picketing and, effectively, the banning of all-out strikes in ‘essential’ public services.
To support his arguments, he draws on the myth of the militant trade union leaders forcing people to go on strike.
What we don’t want to see as unions start to flex their muscles in the autumn is a return to the unfair and unnecessary strikes and ballots that put a terrific psychological burden on people who don’t want to take strike action.
Rrright… So simply having to vote in a ballot puts people under pressure does it? Surely the strike ballot is the chance for the people who don’t want to strike to say so.
He goes on:
There are hard-working people on London’s transport system who are unnerved by what is going on. There are intimidating people who stop them getting to work, or a strike is called on the basis of a very small proportion of the relevant workforce.
There are already criminal laws against intimidatory picketing, so if Boris has any evidence of this, he should be encouraging people to take their cases to court.
Then there’s this:
People have a human right to withdraw their labour. But we have to think very carefully about how it is done and the effect on people who aren’t in the ballot and suddenly find they’re co-opted into a strike they don’t support.
This is utter rot! Nobody can be forced to go on strike. Furthermore, if you haven’t been balloted you can’t go on strike, or, at least, not on a legally protected strike. To go on strike, workers must have been balloted. Even then, if your union wins its strike ballot, you are still not obliged to go on strike. Your union is forbidden from taking any action against you for not going on strike.
The suggestion that people can be excluded from a ballot and ‘co-opted’ into a strike against their will is, therefore, no more than a fairy story.
Such things might have happened in the 1970s but, as Boris of all people should know, the Thatcher and Major governments put a stop to all that.
Nowadays trade union ballots, both for industrial action and leadership elections, must be carried out by an independent body, usually the Electoral Reform Society. Members vote in secret, at home. The processes are at least as democratic as those we use to elect politicians.
If people go on strike they do so because they want to. If unions have militant leaders like Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka, it is because their members want them there or, at least, don’t feel strongly enough to vote against them.
As for the proposal to ban strikes, this is just alarmist nonsense. Britain has never banned strikes in peacetime. Industrial action was outlawed during the Second World War but even during the troubled inter-war period, the government stopped short of an outright strike ban. If, during previous periods of economic turmoil and industrial unrest, governments have never banned strike action, why, when strikes are at an all-time low, does it need to do so now?
Even John Redwood, the Pol Pot of Thatcherism, has said there is no need for an anti-union vendetta, as has Norman Tebbit, the author of many of the laws which make Boris’s stories of forced strike action so implausible.
Boris’s attempt to look like a hard man is actually rather pathetic. He has picked on a very small problem and tried to blow it up into a massive issue – a straw dragon that he can then claim only he has the will to vanquish.
That said, if he were to implement his anti-union programme, he might be surprised by the results. There is nothing like an assault on union rights for stirring the apathetic members into action. Anti-union rhetoric always assumes that the people who don’t vote in strike ballots are against taking action. It may be that the need to get a 50 percent vote focuses people’s minds. The threat of legal restrictions might focus their minds even further. There is a lot of anger against the government’s austerity measures at the moment. Disproportionate and unnecessary trade union legislation might well lead to more militancy, not less.
Drawing on stories from the 1970s to create a myth of union barons forcing reluctant members to strike, is a cheap trick. Boris should beware of summoning up the monster of militancy past. It might just turn round and bite him.