Britain already has the most draconian strike laws in Europe

Calls are once again being made to tighten Britain's strike laws. However Britain already has some of the most draconian industrial relations laws in Europe.

In light of the decision by trade unionists to strike over the closure of every ticket office on the London Underground, calls are once again being made by senior Conservative politicians to tighten Britain’s strike laws.

As well as Mayor of London Boris Johnson calling on Number 10 to introduce a rule whereby a minimum turnout of 50 per cent would be required for a strike to be legal, David Cameron is rumoured to be considering designating the tube an “essential service”.

This would create a legal requirement for the provision of a minimum service at all times, as currently applies to the fire service and police force.

And yet Britain already has some of the most draconian industrial relations laws in Europe.

The main piece of legislation governing the right to strike in Britain is the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. This requires that trade unions give employers a minimum of seven day’s notice before holding a ballot of the members. If the ballot is successful, another seven day’s notice must be given before industrial action can begin.

However the devil lies in the detail: the notification and balloting procedures are notoriously Kafkaesque. This can result in seemingly successful ballots being invalidated by the courts for a breach of one of the many elaborate rules.

To give just two examples:

  • In 2009, Unite balloted BA cabin crew, resulting in a massive 92 per cent vote in favour of industrial action with an 80 per cent turnout. However the High Court granted an injunction preventing the strike because Unite had balloted several members who were set to take voluntary redundancy.
  • Again in 2009, Metrobus workers in London called a strike to standardise terms for staff across various London bus companies. Following a ballot for industrial action, Metrobus sought injunctive relief which was then granted by the High Court on the grounds that the union had not communicated the result of the ballot to the employer soon enough – it took Unite 20 hours.

In sum, a plethora of legislation has been introduced in the past 30 years with the intention of making it harder to go on strike even after a majority of the workforce has voted in favour of industrial action. As was perceptibly noted in a recent letter to the Guardian, ‘Independent judges’ also very often interpret these laws in favour of employers.

Since 1980, the following legislation has been introduced to reduce the likelihood of strike action:

  • the 1980 Employment Act;
  • the 1982 Employment Act;
  • the 1984 Trade Union Act;
  • the 1988 Employment Act;
  • the 1989 Employment Act;
  • the 1990 Employment Act;
  • the 1993 Employment Act.

The idea that in 2013 strikes are the most urgent problem facing the country is also pure pie in the sky. The number of working days lost to industrial action hit an all-time-low in 2012, with just 250,300 days lost. This compares to an average of 12.9m working days a year in the 1970s.

In reality, many of the low-paying and “flexible” – see insecure – jobs currently being created by the British economy are crying out for more active trade unions. Today five million workers in Britain earn less than living wage, and an increasing number toil away on insecure ‘zero-hours’ contracts.

A fascinating graph by Colin Gordon for Dissent magazine from last year also illustrated the relationship between trade unionism and inequality. Essentially, as union membership in the United States has declined the share of income going to the top 10 per cent has increased. In Britain, the share of total UK incomes going to the richest 1 per cent has increased from 6 per cent in 1979 to 14 per cent today.

So no, we don’t need more draconian anti-strike legislation. There is ample evidence which suggests the pendulum has swung too far in that direction already.

James Bloodworth is the editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter

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