Restricting strike action is Thatcherite nostalgia – it must be stopped

The Conservatives are planning to make strikes so restrictive they cross the boundary into an attack on fundamental civil liberties. We must stand up to them

The Conservatives are planning to make strikes so restrictive they cross the boundary into an attack on fundamental civil liberties. We must stand up to them

The Conservative Party will make restrictions on strikes central to their manifesto at the next election.

These are not just a few bureaucratic obstacles that will make life a bit more difficult for trade unions, but are so restrictive they cross the boundary into an attack on fundamental civil liberties.

What is more they will open up trade union activists to increased surveillance by the state and will lower living standards for both union and non-union members.

There are three parts to the Conservative proposals.

First, they will require at least 50 per cent of the workforce to vote, even though elections as important as that for the London Mayor have never met this threshold.

It is an irrational test. A 49 per cent vote for action with none against would be below,the legal threshold. A narrow 26 per cent to 25 per cent margin for action would pass. It makes an abstention more powerful than a vote against.

Union ballots, particularly of a large and dispersed workforce, rarely meet a 50 per cent threshold. This will make strikes almost impossible.

Postal votes for union ballots were made compulsory when the mail was our main means of distance communication. Now most post is junk mail or bills. Life has moved online. For sure give people a chance to vote by post, but the best way to boost turnout is to allow secret secure online voting – something the Conservatives reject.

Secondly, there will be complex new rules for ballots and communications with members. It is of course good practice to communicate properly – and members are smart enough to tell when you are not. But as soon as you start to set it out in law, all you doing is give employers new ways to challenge ballots in the courts.

Thirdly, there will be new special criminal offences for people on picket lines, even though the police seem to think existing public order laws are sufficient. The Conservatives propose that if a seventh person joins a peaceful and good-natured picket line, all seven could be prosecuted and gain a criminal record.

New criminal laws will regulate on-line communication. Strikers will face tougher legal restrictions on Twitter than other people, and to enforce them union activists will be subject to enhanced surveillance as potential criminals.

These proposals are not an answer to how we can better measure the mood of a workforce, but to the question how can we stop strikes, intimidate staff and help bad bosses. Strikes would become so difficult that there would be no effective right to strike in the UK.

Yet this is a fundamental civil liberty routinely suppressed by authoritarian dictatorships. But it will have a wider economic effect too.

Collective bargaining works when the power of the employer is partially matched by the power to take industrial action on the worker side. Strikes are rare because negotiators understand each other.

But without an effective right to strike, the balance of power flows to the employer. The result is lower wage deals and worse terms and conditions. This is why even the IMF, recognising that wages need to rise, wants to spread and strengthen collective bargaining.

Unionised workplaces play an important role in setting the going rate across sectors. So even non-union members will suffer as pay gets depressed across the whole economy.

This is a policy that might appeal to Conservatives trapped in Thatcherite nostalgia. Perhaps it is meant to deter UKIP defections. But one thing is for sure, it is a policy that takes its supporters a long way away from the basic instinct for fairness of the vast majority of voters.

Frances O’Grady is TUC general secretary

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