Uncertainty over calls for further restrictions on strikes

In June 2011, in response to strikes by a number of public sector unions over pension reform, and threats of more strike action in the near future, the UK’s main employers’ organisation, the CBI, renewed its call for the tighter regulation of industrial action. Two leading government ministers indicated that the UK’s coalition government is considering possible amendments to legislation on strikes but at present does not believe there is a ‘compelling case’ for change.

CBI repeats call for tighter regulation

To organise strikes or other industrial action legally, trade unions in the UK must have secured majority support in a postal ballot of the members concerned. Strikes held by some public sector unions on 30 June 2011 (UK1107019I) prompted renewed calls from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) for changes to the current requirements.

Ahead of these recent strikes, the employers’ organisation issued a news release on 17 June 2011 highlighting the low participation rates of union members in the strike ballots held by three of the unions concerned – the National Union of Teachers (NUT), the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS). According to the CBI, while the three unions achieved ‘yes’ votes for strike action of 92% (NUT), 83% (ATL) and 61% (PCS) of those voting, only a minority of balloted members voted – 40% (NUT), 35% (ATL) and 32% (PCS). This meant that the percentages of the balloted workforce voting ‘yes’ to strike action were 37%, 29% and 20% respectively. Commenting on these figures, CBI Director-General John Cridland said:

The strikes planned for 30th June will cause major disruption … I don’t think the unions have a mandate with such low ballot results. Yet the majority of their members, who didn’t vote for strike action, will find themselves in a very difficult position and losing pay in the process.

The CBI wants the 30-year-old strike laws to be changed. We believe at least 40% of the balloted workforce and a simple majority of those voting should support strike action before it happens.

Workers must also be made aware of the consequences of going on strike … Ballot papers should include a clear warning that pay and other benefits can be withdrawn if an employee goes on strike.

CBI news release, 17 June 2011

This statement echoes proposals put forward by the CBI in a report on the legal framework of industrial relations (870Kb PDF) published in 2010. This too called for the introduction of a requirement that, to be lawful, strikes must have the support of 40% of balloted members, as well as a majority of those voting.

Broadly similar calls have been made by the ‘centre-right’ think-tank Policy Exchange and by the Conservative Mayor of London, Boris Johnson (UK1010029I).

Government position

On 6 June, in a speech to the annual conference of the GMB union, Business Secretary Vince Cable said that UK strike levels ‘remain historically low’ and that the right to strike is a ‘fundamental principle … On that basis, and assuming this pattern continues, the case for changing strike law is not a compelling one’. However, he added that ‘should the position change, and should strikes impose serious damage to our economic and social fabric, the pressure on us to act will ratchet up’.

On 15 June, a Guardian report quoted the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude as saying that legislation to alter existing strike laws had ‘not been ruled out’. The newspaper reported that ministers had taken part in discussions with the Mayor of London on how to change strike laws should an upsurge in industrial action threaten to disrupt the economy and future international events such as the 2012 Olympic Games.

According to the Guardian, a coalition government source said that there was a desire among ministers to tackle strikes affecting London’s transport network, but not to target unions more generally. Ministers were reported to have rejected calls from Boris Johnson to increase the voting thresholds required in strike ballots, fearing that the effect could be to consolidate support for strikes or trigger unofficial or ‘wildcat’ industrial action. However, one possibility reportedly viewed more favourably by ministers might be to introduce ‘minimum service guarantees’ to ensure crucial services continue despite industrial action. The Guardian quoted Francis Maude as saying: ‘We think strike laws work pretty well. There is no compelling case for change now. There are a number of ideas about how strike laws could be reformed. We’ve looked at that idea, which is one option in a number of others.’

Union reaction

Responding to Vince Cable’s speech, Frances O’Grady, Deputy General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) criticised the government’s ‘threat to toughen up what are already some of the strictest laws against industrial action in any democracy’ as ‘illiberal’.

Mark Hall, IRRU, University of Warwick

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