We don’t need to change the law on strikes

Increasing the threshold for strike ballots is back on the Conservatives’ agenda again.  Trade unions are arguing against it based on the fact that a lot of MPs and most recent governments have been elected by a minority of voters.

It’s a silly argument though. In elections with large numbers of candidates, people will inevitably be elected with minority support, especially in a time of fragmented political allegiances. Strike ballots are more like referendums where there is a straight yes or no choice. That’s why turnout thresholds are often used in referendums.

But strike ballots differ from elections and referendums in one very important way. They are not binding on anyone. In elections and referendums, everyone has to abide by the result, whether they voted for the winning side, the losing side or didn’t vote at all. In a strike ballot, even if the result is in favour of industrial action, no-one is forced to go on strike. A strike ballot is an enabling vote rather than a binding one. It simply means that those who want to go on strike can legally do so.

Let’s recap on the industrial action laws:

  • No-one can be forced to go on strike;
  • No-one can be forced to be a member of a trade union;
  • Unions can’t discipline people for refusing to go on strike;
  • Pickets are restricted to six people so it is impossible to physically prevent people from going to work and there are criminal sanctions against threatening or intimidating behaviour;
  • Those wanting to strike can’t do so without a ballot and they need to get a majority of those voting to agree with them; but
  • (And this last one is really important) An apathetic majority can’t stop a committed minority from going on strike.

All that sounds pretty reasonable to me. Tory grandees like Norman Tebbit and John Redwood have advised against changing the law. Well they would, wouldn’t they? After all, they were part of the Thatcher and Major governments which put most of this legislation in place.

If strike ballots were binding on all members, then there would be a case for setting turnout thresholds. But they aren’t, so there isn’t.

This proposal isn’t about setting a fairer framework for industrial relations though. It looks more like a desperate attempt to resurrect a policy from the party’s legendary heroic past in the hope that there might be some votes in it.

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9 Responses to We don’t need to change the law on strikes

  1. John says:

    This is just the latest attempt by the Bullingdon Boys to return Britain back to a so-called “golden” era when the working class knew their place and worked for pittances of wages.
    There were times – in the 1970s in particular – when the balance between employers and employees tilted too far in favour of the employees but the present weakened situation of the trades unions and their members, if anything, represents a turn for the worse in terms of growing inequality in the UK.
    There is a simple answer for the Tories: don’t vote for them; vote for anyone who will help to stop them forming a majority UK government. That’s all there is to say on this matter.

  2. David says:

    No it isn’t . The list of restrictions in the blog on trade union in the activity is incredibly naive . As an ex (assistant) shop steward representing an extremely active Union I know that the bleating one now hears is disingenuous , at best .
    My big problem with the Conservatives proposals is that I doubt they understand the nature of the problem any more than Labour does . During my time as an official I ran up against politicians of all colours and no one party inspired confidence .
    So , vote for who or wherever your prejudices take you but ignore any trade union cosying or bashing , in my bitter experiance it’s all waffle .

    • Rick says:

      So what is the real nature of the problem? What have I written here that your experience tells you is wrong?

      • David says:

        The list of restrictions and is just too simplistic . If you applied that reasoning to , say , the restrictions on ‘bankers’ behaviour (if there were such a thing!) how cynical would your response then be . Personal experiance confirms points 1- 4 are just so easy to circumnavigate by the wrong people in the right positions . I know from personal experiance that any well organised and funded Union branch understands the game well .
        You have to have had shop floor experiance to understand the emotions and physical fear that can be brought to bear on what you may be referring to as the ‘apathetic majority’ . It is a source of embarrassment that in my time I felt that any pressure was justified as long as the right result (my result) was achieved .
        But , Rik , see how I’m already being backed into the ‘more restrictions’ corner which isn’t what I feel . The best solution is always for the industrial process to be less about us and them (which was how I dealt with it and how it’s often portrayed here) but more a common problem shared . What’s needed , as ever , is more responsible and less politically motivated trades unionists (my failure) and similarly enlightened management , with the time and encouragement to see it through . Sometimes with the best will in the world , however , for financial or other restrictions there simply is no arrangement that can be satisfactorily achieved and then those responsible have to be left to make unpopular decisions and take the consequences , whatever .

  3. Jez says:

    We’re now in a period of intensive, knee-jerk, appeal-to-the masses, populist policy promises in the run-up to the election . It’s all about grabbing headlines and nothing at all to do with detailed policy analysis. In this case, it’s a blunt appeal to Daily Mail readers and their ilk. We’ve already seen plenty (especially relating to the NHS, taxation and the economy) and will see many more in the next few months from all parties. Don’t over-analyse – there’s little if any factual or practical basis to any of them.

  4. Bina says:

    cf Jez. I doubt appealing to Daily Mail readership (currently estimated by the DM at c3.5m) would have any significant impact on the electorate (approx. 40something million). There have been a number of ‘announcements’ (AKA idea testing) by the main political parties that I find offensive. I am personally tired of this legal-systems-adversarial type political posturing as it is the least effective way of engaging with what people really feel needs to be addressed politically, or indeed, to provide any reasonable basis for people to assess the likely success of manifesto promises to resolve societal issues, allocation of public finances etc. These proposals to curtail union led actions in order to ‘force’ discussion of important issues are, in my view, the tip of the iceberg – a dangerous and destructive iceberg at that. The Toryanic might discover it isn’t unsinkable after all.

  5. David says:

    Agree with most of you write Bina but fear that what you (and I) wish for is impossible . Why do PMQ’s still exist , for example . Just a knockabout Punch and Judy show for journos and the Westminster inmates .
    Still it’s good to see that respectful debate still exists here , what with lines such as ‘Daily Mail Readrers and their Ilk’ , not forgetting the evergreen ‘Bullingdon Boys’ jibe , always good for some reasoned debate to confirm ones prejudices .

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