Any threat of strikes is inevitably accompanied by government sabre-rattling about changing the law on industrial action. Reading much of the commentary about industrial disputes, you could be forgiven for thinking that we were still in the 1970s. Maybe that’s because some of those who rant the loudest grew up in that decade and seem imprisoned by their own nostalgia.
But this isn’t the 1970s and a lot has changed so let’s get a few things straight about strikes and unions.
- No-one is forced to join a union these days. Closed shops have been effectively unenforceable for the past 20 years.
- No-one is forced to pay the political levy, so all the contributions paid to the Labour Party by unions are from voluntary contributions by members.
- The Unions don’t have a block vote. Individual members vote for Labour leaders. It’s misleading to say that the unions delivered the leadership to Ed Miliband. It was the votes of individual union members that helped him win.
- All strike votes are decided by secret ballot, and have been since the mid-1980s. The show-of-hands in the car park has long since disappeared.
- Union members vote by post, using ballots sent to home addresses. Workplace ballots have been illegal since 1993, which is why stories of workers being intimidated at the ballot box, or voting papers being sent to workplaces that have burnt, down are complete rubbish. That such tall tales are presented as fact in certain newspapers is a symptom of how distorted the reporting of industrial relations has become.
- For good measure, the electoral reform society, or other independent bodies, run these ballots, so the unions don’t even count their own votes.
- No-one is compelled to go on strike. Even if a majority of union members vote to strike, the decision to strike is up to each worker. Unions are not even allowed to discipline their members for refusing to strike.
The laws brought in by Conservative governments in the 1980s democratised the trade unions. As some of us predicted at the time, this has strengthened the unions’ hand. (Yes, I know I was only a youngster then but I was an opinionated little sod!)
Nowadays, if a strike is called, a union has a clear mandate. It usually has majority support or, at least, the backing of most of those who felt strongly enough to vote. Furthermore, those who go on strike do so by choice. If a lot of people go out on strike it’s because a lot of people want to strike, not because the union leaders told them to do it.
The same applies to unions’ leaders. You might not agree with Bob Crow or Mark Serwotka (and most of the time I don’t) but their members voted for them. These days such firebrands can only stay in office if enough of their members want them to.
The Tory union laws mean that many of the charges levelled at the unions by conservative commentators don’t stand up. Unions are democratic now. The union barons can’t make the members do anything they don’t want to do.
A 50 percent turnout requirement for strike ballots is unlikely to make much difference. (I couldn’t find any figures but I’d be interested to know how many recent strikes would not have gone ahead had such a law been in place.) Its only purpose would be to make politicians look as though they were taking action.
People strike because they are pissed off about something. If the strike has a high turnout it’s because more of them are pissed off. If we have a summer of discontent it will be because a lot of people are discontented. Changing the law won’t make them any less discontented. It might even make them more so.
Update 1: Darren Newman has some doubts about government’s proposals too. He suggests that a return to workplace ballots might increase the turnout in votes in industrial action. But, as he says, that’s not really the point of the proposed legislation.
Update 2: Less than 20 percent of the PCS membership voted to strike in the recent ballot. It will be interesting to see how that translates into the proportion who strike on the day. This might make a few more decide to walk out.