UK: Tories pledge to make industrial action more difficult

Prime Minister David Cameron has said the Conservative Party would seek to legislate with tough new rules to control trade unions if it wins the next general election. He made his comments on 9 July 2014 – the eve of widespread public sector strike action.

Current rules say a strike is legal if the majority of returned ballot papers are in favour. Conservative Party changes would mean a majority of all union members would need to vote in favour of action for any strike to be legal. 

It is also being reported that the Conservatives would look to amend the time for which a ballot remains legal in the case of a union pursuing discontinuous action. The party is looking at rules that would demand a separate ballot for each stoppage.

Discussion of industrial action legislation was prompted by a series of public sector strikes, with the ballot of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) receiving particular attention. Referring to the NUT strike ballot Cameron commented during Prime Minister’s Questions: ‘The strike ballot took place in 2012. It is based on a 27% turnout. How can it possibly be right for our children’s education to be disrupted by trade unions acting in this way? It is time to legislate, and that will be in the Conservative manifesto’.

Support for the proposals is not shared across the coalition government. Liberal Democrat coalition partner and Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills, Vince Cable, interviewed on the BBC television on 13 July 2014 described the Conservative proposals as ‘nonsense’. The national daily newspaper, The Telegraph, also reported his criticism of the proposed reforms.

When the Conservative Party published its proposals in a press release on 18 July 2014, the most significant elements were:

  • a 50% turnout threshold for strikes;
  • a requirement for unions to set out the exact nature of the dispute and for members to be balloted on each aspect of the dispute;
  • the ballot paper to specify the nature of industrial action such as  the time of year and the duration;
  • mandates to be limited to three months.

The national Trade Union Congress (TUC) highlighted in its response to the proposals that the plans did not include measures to improve participation,  such as moving ballots online. It said the proposals would make legal strikes close to impossible and would fundamentally weaken the negotiating power of workers. 

In a separate development, the July 2014 Labour Research Department newsletter reported that stipulations in the Procurement Reform (Scotland) Bill meant employee representation – including trade union recognition – could be taken into account when assessing a contractor’s suitability for a public contract. The Bill received Royal Assent on 17 June 2014. 

Meanwhile, it was announced in August 2014 that the Carr Review (reported in Q2) would no longer be making recommendations regarding the law governing industrial disputes. Bruce Carr QC released a statement citing his concerns about ‘the ability of the Review to operate in a progressively politicised environment in the run up to the general election and in circumstances in which the main parties will wish to legitimately set out their respective manifesto commitments and have already started to do so’. It was confirmed that a report would still be prepared for publication in the autumn.

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