Tougher strike laws – another red herring

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.

  1. No-one is forced to join a union these days. Closed shops have been effectively unenforceable for the past 20 years.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. For good measure, the electoral reform society, or other independent bodies, run these ballots, so the unions don’t even count their own votes.
  7. 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.

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7 Responses to Tougher strike laws – another red herring

  1. Pingback: Tougher strike laws – another red herring - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. This is a very good post, Rick.
    In answer to your penutlimate paragraph: It hasn’t yet gone ahead, of course, but the PCS union has published the breakdown of voting in the ballot on its planned day of strike action for Thursday 30 June 2011 ( The PCS says: “61.1% of members voted in favour of strike action and 83.6% in favour of action short of strike, on a turnout of 32.4%.”
    Doug Shaw and I discussed these figures in the comments box on this post:
    This point in particular jumps out from your post: “Changing the law won’t make them any less discontented. It might even make them more so. ”

  3. Doug Shaw says:

    On the basis that most folk don’t like change that is foist upon them I think your point “Changing the law won’t make them any less discontented. It might even make them more so.” is a banker – am I allowed to use that word around here 🙂

  4. karencwise says:

    Interestingly I was involved in a ballot for “action short of strike action” and although there was a majority in favour, the Union decided not to take action. The ballot itself was the lever for change they were seeking.

    There is increasing fear of strikes within the public sector and I’m aware that many organisations are pulling together Emergency Plans for such events. However, what has struck me is how many of these contain inaccurate facts about the regulations that unions have to comply to in order to undertake a ballot. Perhaps this is because there are many HR practitioners out there who have not experienced a ballot in a life-time of work? And if so, is this all about to change?

  5. Cahal Moran says:

    Very informative post.

    What interests me is the shouts of ‘selfish’ from the right, whilst there is little complaint about banker’s furious lobbying against reform.

    Apparently standing up for your job is considered selfish nowadays.

  6. Another thing that really gets my goat in the debate on the rights and wrongs of strike action is the doublethink engaged in by politicians who always declare it to be the “wrong time” to strike. On the one hand, ministers (and, famously, opposition leader not-so-red Ed) shout loudly that a strike is premature while negotiations are ongoing. On the other hand, they complain equally bitterly that strikes are pointless once the “final offer” is on the table which will be implemented regardless, as in the recent NHS strike.

    As for the wisdom of striking during the Olympics: Unite came out looking foolish when it threatened a BA cabin crew strike over Christmas in 2009 (the timing was even criticised in the High Court when it granted an injunction – albeit mainly on other grounds). In this case the combination of low turnout and poor timing could make it an own goal for PCS and the union cause in general.

  7. Blimey, I’ve just noticed I’ve been commenting on something you wrote a year ago. You could have written it today – I assumed it was about the forthcoming PCS strike.

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