How should trade unions respond to strike law threats?
The announcement at the weekend that the Conservative election manifesto will include higher strike ballot thresholds for some public services is no surprise, in fact it is consistent with this government’s attacks on trade union facilities and checkoff. With 80% of trade union membership in the public sector and strike ballots continually showing low membership participation it is hardly surprising that the Tories have chosen these strikes as a key strategic battle – if they win it trade unions would appear to be largely neutralised. Along with previous statements, the range of Tory proposals for public service strikes now looks like this
- At least 50% of eligible members must vote
- At least 40% of all eligible members and more than 50% of those actually voting must vote ‘yes’
- Applying to health, education, transport and fire
In addition, where any strike ballots are successful:
14 days’ notice of strike action will be required instead of the current 7
- Strike mandates will be valid for three months only
- Cover (as yet undefined) will be required to be provided
- Agency workers will be allowed to replace strikers
- Picketing rules will make it easier for non-strikers to go into work
Described by Tory coalition partner Vince Cable as “entirely ideologically-led and a brutal attempt to strangle the basic rights of working people in this country” but unsurprisingly welcomed by employer organisations, these proposals are more than an expedient tactic to wrong-foot Labour during the election campaign. Make no mistake; this really is what the Tories intend to do. Furthermore, just like they did with their heavily trailed changes to public sector pensions after the 2010 election, according to Francis Maude this is something they would want to begin legislating on early in the new parliament.
Don’t let the Tories in is, of course, the chief strategy. But that is not enough. We also have to prepare for the unpalatable prospect that the Conservatives might form part or all of the next government. So some obvious but difficult questions arise in the event of the Conservatives' electoral success –
- How do we make this more than just a ‘curb the politicised union barons’ debate?
- Should we realistically reassess industrial action in public services?
- Can we properly test whether the new restrictions could be quashed by international law?
- Do we attempt to draw up alternative proposals and prepare to enter dialogue?
- Would there now be grounds to plan a make-or-break general strike?
The Conservatives are busily drawing up their plans, it would be sensible for us to get our own in good order. A point to note from the aforementioned public service pensions dispute is that the trade unions did not pursue a common strategy and soon divided into separate negotiations and disputes, some of which are still ongoing. That may or may not be the best way to handle the Tories’ strike proposals if they get in but the lesson is that it is surely better to debate our strategies before change is foisted upon us rather than afterwards.