by Steve Beasant on 11 September, 2015
The following article was written by the Former Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable and the General Secretary of the TUC Frances O’Grady and published on the Guardian Website.
Britain does not have a strike problem – so why the need for new legislation? The government should be working constructively with unions to raise productivity.
The Conservative government plans legislation later this year that will heavily circumscribe workers’ already limited freedom to take industrial action.
Neither the coalition, nor the previous Labour government, saw any need to revisit strike legislation. So, what has changed?
Strikes, when they happen, are not always popular. The public, and business, face disruption. Strikers themselves lose pay. But the right to withdraw labour as a last resort in industrial disputes is fundamental to free societies, as the European Convention on Human Rights recognises.
Moreover, it is far from obvious that Britain has a “strike problem”. There have been periods in 20th-century history of intense industrial strife. But in the 1990s and 2000s strikes accounted for well under a million days a year. The trend continued under the coalition, despite strong disagreements over pay, pensions and redundancies. The 6.5 million British people who belong to a union – just over a quarter of the labour force and over half of public sector workers – withdrew their labour, on average, for one day in 15 years. By any standards, historically or in comparison with other democratic countries, Britain is remarkably strike-free.
So what is the problem new legislation is designed to address? There have recently been several short but disruptive public service strikes, notably at Transport for London. Regardless of which side you take and whatever your view on the dispute, how can anyone justify designing industrial relations law affecting millions around a few thousand?
Several major changes are envisaged, all of which were considered by the coalition and rejected on their merits by Lib Dem ministers (who had absolutely no self-interest in defending trade unions that sometimes seemed as angry with them as the Conservatives, if not more). But the Lib Dems simply regarded the proposals as ideologically driven, unnecessary and bad policy.
A central proposal will allow employers to substitute agency workers for strikers during disputes, effectively undermining the industrial action. If employers use it, the proposal risks long-term damage to cooperative working and could also mean that agency workers are asked to undertake technically demanding jobs they are not qualified or experienced for.
The legislation will also require longer notice to employers of impending action (14 rather than seven days) and this seemingly innocuous proposal is linked to another, altogether more alarming. Unions will have to publish, 14 days in advance, a written plan of any intended protest and specific details about it, including social media use. Demonstrations are to be severely circumscribed and discouraged in a way that we would not expect to see in a modern democracy such as the UK. Basic civil liberties are under attack, which will have implications way beyond the union movement.
Another set of proposals concern the thresholds of voter turnout required for a legal strike ballot. Some strikes have been called on the basis of a majority but a low turnout. But, in practice, fewer than one in five ballots result in strikes. Where there is lukewarm support, unions are unlikely to undermine their own bargaining power by precipitating action that is likely to fail. And attempts to impose restrictive conditions will almost certainly ensure that where there is a deeply felt and widely shared grievance, the subsequent action is more bitter and protracted with less willingness to settle.
There is also an issue of principle. In public sector disputes, the employer is accountable to politicians – mayors, councillors or ministers in parliament – whose own democratic mandate may be weaker than that of the trade union.
The coalition government was unable to agree on a Conservative proposal to stop “check-off” arrangements for deducting union dues through wage payment systems. It was established that check off involved no cost to the public purse and so Lib Dem cabinet ministers continued to support the practice in their departments, believing that it maintained good relations with staff at no cost.
Check off will now end across government, with central government unilaterally imposing its views on all public sector employers.
The Conservative proposals are ideological rather than practical and have a weak evidential and legal basis. An opportunity is being missed to work with unions on a positive and forward-looking basis. Unions represent a substantial and, now, growing proportion of the workforce. Many good employers, private and public sector, work constructively with unions to raise productivity, and thence pay. As the TUC has argued, we should be seeking to strengthen industrial democracy, involving the workforce in genuine consultation around the transition to a digital age, in training and worker education and – yes – in pay differentials from top to bottom.
If the government genuinely wants to make unions responsive to their members there is one useful step they can take: remove the legal impediments to electronic balloting. There are security issues here (as with postal voting) but they can be overcome. There are good models overseas and digitisation is evolving rapidly. Refighting the battles of the 1980s is a poor substitute for constructive engagement.Leave a comment