The Trade Union Bill has its third reading this week. It will almost certainly be passed, now that some of the unworkable bits of it have been dropped. The bill is a political stunt. There is no practical reason for it as strikes are at an all time low. There is no moral reason for it as a strike vote is not binding on those who don’t vote or who vote no. The argument that strikes are inconvenient is a red herring. A strike voted for by 80 percent of the workers is just as inconvenient as one backed by only 30 percent. Probably more so as it is likely to be more solid. Inconvenience is an argument for banning strikes altogether, not for adjusting the ballot threshold.
Given that it is difficult for unions to get high voter turnout in postal ballots this legislation is likely to make strikes more difficult to call. A 40 percent threshold effectively counts non votes as no votes. An apathetic majority can therefore deny a committed minority its right to strike. Using the law to stop people going on strike doesn’t solve the underlying causes of industrial disputes though. If people are disgruntled enough to go on strike, preventing them from doing so legally will only make them resort to other means.
Boris Johnson describes action by London Underground workers as “wildcat strikes”. This is a misuse of the term. Wildcat industrial action is that which is in breach of agreed procedures and not officially sanctioned by the union. Talk of banning wildcat strikes is ridiculous because wildcat strikes are, by definition, already banned. I suspect that Boris knows this and is simply using the term as a smear.
He should be careful what he wishes for because the more difficult you make it to strike within the law, the more likely people are to resort to wildcat action. The trouble with wildcat strikes is that they a lot more difficult to manage than official ones. Because wildcat action is illegal, people tend to be more creative about it. For example, continuing to work but refusing to collect fares. This tends to go down well with the public while blowing a big hole in transport operators’ budgets. Then there was the action by prison drivers in Ireland earlier this year. One day they all forgot to bring their driving licences and so were unable to work.
Whereas there is plenty of warning about official action, wildcat strikes just happen. The first thing you’d know about it would be when lots of train drivers called in sick on a Monday morning. In London, that would be enough to bring the city to a standstill by 8am. No time to make alternative arrangements, no scheduling of working from home or out-of-town meetings, just lost of people stuck at stations with nowhere to go.
The other problem with wildcat strikes is finding out who to negotiate with. Because they are illegal, people are reluctant to admit to organising them. The union certainly won’t if it wants to avoid being fined. Workers risk being sacked or sued. If a strike is unofficial employment protection doesn’t apply. It can therefore be difficult to negotiate and almost impossible to know whether the people you are negotiating with have the power to stop the strike if you reach a settlement.
Official strikes operate within a structure that allows them to be planned for and managed. They act as a safety valve for workplace discontent, allowing it to be channelled, focused and managed. Remove that and the alternative may be less predictable and more disorderly forms of industrial action. Communications technology and social media have made it easier to organise large groups of people at short notice. A few weeks ago, for example, hundreds of motorcyclists appeared on the streets of London, taking the authorities completely by surprise. Flash mobs have been used very effectively against supermarket chains by German trade unions. An attempt by employers to have them banned was thrown out by the courts. Making traditional forms of industrial action more difficult might encourage people to think more creatively about how to make their protests.
Evidence from British history and from around the world history tells us that, even when the penalties for striking are severe, they still occur. Trade unions in this country were formed at a time when workers could be imprisoned and, at least in theory, flogged, for walking off the job. Governments can outlaw strikes but they can’t legislate away workplace conflict. It has a habit of making itself known by other means. Making legal and official strikes more difficult makes it more likely that the discontent behind them will appear in ways that are much more disruptive and difficult to manage.