No red tape bonfire for trade unions

Simon Wren-Lewis reflects on the different language used about regulation and employment law when the restrictions apply to employees.

Employees are already beset by red tape if they try to improve their working conditions. Now the UK government wants to increase the regulatory burden on them further, by proposing that employee organisations need a majority of all their members to vote for strike action before a strike becomes legal.

Why should laws that apply to employers be regarded as a regulatory burden, but laws that apply to employees are not. Labour markets, alongside financial markets, are areas where the concept of a ‘free’ market uncluttered by regulations is a myth.

The government, although declaring its intention to reduce the burden of employment law, is considering tougher legislation on industrial action and, possibly, an outright ban in some areas. (See previous posts.)

Not that this stance is unusual. According to the most recent OECD report on employment protection, only two other OECD countries have less protection for the individual employee than the UK. Those countries are Canada and the USA.

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Yet, in both, legislation against industrial action is tougher than it is here. In the USA, all federal government employees and most other public sector workers are banned from striking. Canada has bans on strikes in essential services, the definition for which is fairly broad, and its Back to Work law can be used to force even private sector employees to end their strikes.

These governments’ antipathy to regulation disappears when it comes to restricting industrial action. Labour law, it seems, is fine if it’s applied to trade unions. Our government appears to be thinking along similar lines.

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5 Responses to No red tape bonfire for trade unions

  1. Strikes are inconvenient, but it is the only leverage workers have. Strikes could reasonably be taken away if they were replaced by some reliable arbitration device or guarantees against exploitation. But a realistic alternative is never proposed.

  2. P Hearn says:

    Seems reasonable enough to require a simple 51% majority of members to call a strike. What is the argument against this?

    Perhaps the answer is for trades unions to have mandatory voting on the subject, as the Aussies do for for their General Elections? If this is conducted at work then all members would, by definition, have the chance to participate in a ballot held over a few days (to allow for shifts etc.)

    A strike is serious. It potentially costs members much of the wage increase secured from such action as they endure un-paid spells whilst striking. Nobody wants to see the right to strike denied, but equally, should it be enacted with sometimes wafer-thin support from the membership as a whole?

    • 51% would be, and would have been, eminently achievable if the Government allowed workplace balloting. They have outlawed it, however. This is just a manoeuvre by the Tories to try and prevent all strikes from occurring.

      Bring back workplace ballots and unions could meet and beat the threshold.

      • P Hearn says:

        As long as the ballot is secret, not of the British Leyland ‘hands up in a field mass vote ‘ variety, then agree it should be allowed in the workplace.

        Maybe run by neutral 3rd party?

  3. David says:

    How are you going to counter the intimidation that occurs in the place of work . Don’t even think of suggesting it doesn’t . It was the main method used to force an iffy issue during my experience of being a trade union official , which was admittedly very many moons ago . As for the Tory gibe , I didn’t notice the recent socialist (!) government rushing to repeal any of Thatchers reforms….

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