The CBI’s anti-strike rhetoric is anti-democratic

The CBI want the strike laws to be toughened in such a way that a 40 per cent “yes” vote would be needed before a strike was allowed. We learn from The Times today that “secret” talks are going on about introducing new curbs on industrial action.

Our guest writer is Sarah Veale, head of equality and employment rights at the TUC

The CBI want the strike laws to be toughened in such a way that a 40 per cent “yes” vote would be needed before a strike was allowed. We learn from The Times today that “secret” talks are going on about introducing new curbs on industrial action. It would be surprising if the Coalition Government wasn’t discussing strikes, given the scale of their proposed cuts in the public sector.

What self respecting union wouldn’t be discussing industrial action, among other things. Thousands of jobs are to be lost, pensions are to be reduced, working conditions for those left in employment will be much tougher.

Unions will do what they always do, negotiate first but if that doesn’t deliver significantly, ask their members if they want to withdraw their labour in protest.

It is a hallmark of any democracy that workers can withdraw their labour for good reason. In the UK we have some of the toughest restrictions on striking in any democratic country. In fact there is no right to strike in the UK – simply a set of immunities from prosecution if a number of regulatory hurdles are jumped.

For example, employers must be given notice of intended strike ballots, then of the strike itself, within a strictly prescribed timeframe and in a strictly prescribed way. To make one small error can cause the whole strike to be declared illegal by the courts, even if 99 per cent voted in favour of it.

As Unite found out last Christmas, accidentally balloting a very small number of staff who had just been made redundant was enough to warrant court intervention, even though the numbers involved would have made absolutely no difference to the result. There are other tough regulatory hurdles to clear including the wording on the ballot papers, the timing of the notices to employers and the nature of the dispute. On top of all this, by law unions must use prescribed balloting organisations, at considerable cost, to run the ballots.

At the moment a simple majority of those balloted must vote in favour for the strike to be legal. The CBI proposals would mean that not only must there be a majority but in addition 40 per cent of those balloted must vote “yes”. In other words abstentions and non-voting would count as votes against. If these rules were to be applied to, say, local authority elections, there would be very few councils operating.

The UK not only has some of the strictest strike laws, already rendering it in contravention of ILO Conventions and internationally recognised human rights protections but it also has one of the lowest numbers of days lost to industrial action of any country. You could argue that that this means that the existing laws are a great success – indeed that is what the Conservative manifesto said but with the ominous threat of doing more if industrial action became a problem.

One final point is that any further restrictions on an already over-regulated area are likely to stimulate unofficial action of the kind more often seen in France and Greece recently – when workers are really angry they are unlikely to wait for lengthy ballots or indeed take any notice of harsh court decisions – they will vote with their feet. Does the Government really want industrial anarchy or, as the Liberal Democrats said in their manifesto, fairness at work?

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