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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22 Responses to “Restricting strike action is Thatcherite nostalgia – it must be stopped”

  1. blarg1987

    I know the main counter argument against extending such proposed legislation to elections is that not everyone can vote when Unions go on strike and the disruption it can cause to those people that have no say etc.

    Which then raises a new question, if the Conservatives want elected ballots to only pass with the above proposals, will that also mean they will extend this proposed legislation to Publicly Listed Companies? After all the disruption caused when they make mistakes e.g. bank bailout and the lack of people voting in some cases does mean that they need reform.

    I would recommend LFF raise this question with the Conservative party directly, would love to see their response, would be extremely difficult, if not untenable for them not to make PLC’s also come under this legislation.

  2. David Lindsay

    The whole thing proves that the Conservative Party is now down to a core of the core of the core vote strategy.

  3. CGR

    Trade Unions are well past their sell-by date.

  4. blarg1987

    Be careful what you wish for, with much of your employment legislation, coming from trade union pressure, and some political parties wanting to remove these pieces of legislation. Trade Unions are probably needed now more then ever.

  5. Cole

    What a very odd idea. Why?

  6. blarg1997

    Ok, say the government removes all your working employment protections and wage laws. Then your employer makes you working substantially longer hours and pays you less, what body will you use to represent you? You may say your MP but then if they are in the pockets or funded by large scale employers they are not really going to represent you. You may say work elsewhere, what a good idea, but if every employer is doing the same thing e.g. lowering pay etc you will not be better off. This leaves becoming an MP or creating a group to stand against such legislation which is what trade unions started from.

  7. Leon Wolfeson

    As ever, substitute “workers rights” for “Trade Unions” to see what’s being said.

  8. Leon Wolfeson

    Not at all. They’re fighting for the votes and money of the rich, to try and take them from UKIP. Fighting for is the Vulgar Libertarian banker-base…

  9. Leon Wolfeson

    For that matter, every vote ever. Otherwise, why should it be recognised as legitimate?

  10. Leon Wolfeson

    What a surprise, criminalising many forms of speech, criminalising standing with other workers (no disruption involved, etc.), changing the ballots to essentially outlaw withholding labour, etc.

    It’s a direct attack on basic rights. Thing is, I expect Labour to sign on strongly.

  11. David Lindsay

    In the course of denouncing any proposal for a UKIP pact with the Conservative Party yesterday, the UKIP Deputy Chairman Suzanne Evans advocated: “Ending the bedroom tax; taking everyone on minimum wage out of tax altogether; cutting fuel bills; keeping the NHS free; restoring free eye and dental checks; regulating zero hours contracts; scrapping road tolls; taking our fair share of refugees; abolishing tuition fees for poorer families on approved courses.”

    She favourably described that position as “left-wing.” By publishing it, James Delingpole’s Breitbart London has gone where Telegraph Blogs never went.

    I am the first say that the national and parliamentary sovereignty of the United Kingdom is, with municipalism, the only means to social democracy in the territory that it covers, and is thus the democracy in social democracy.

    No less than the previous point, only social democracy, and not least the public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy, is capable of safeguarding that sovereignty, national and parliamentary, and that democracy, parliamentary and municipal.

    One Nation, indeed. “The common sense centre ground,” as Evans calls it, indeed. But I never took that for the position either of UKIP or of Breitbart News London. And in the former case, especially, I wonder who will.

    If it is not the Conservatives wanting to be New Labour, then it is UKIP wanting to be, or at least to appear to be, Old Labour. No one wants to be on the Right in Britain. No one will even admit to being on the Right in Britain. No matter how obviously they are.

  12. Leon Wolfeson

    Eh? Labour and the Greens (who are, sure, centralist) are about the only people denying being right wing at this point.

    Moreover, UKIP’s bad jokes about left-wing policies are just sad.

    None of that addresses what I said either!

  13. David Lindsay

    They may be sad, but they are not joking. They are wrong. But they are serious.

  14. Leon Wolfeson

    You just said the UKIP have left-wing policies. Erm..

  15. David Lindsay

    No, their Deputy Chairman has said that. It will come as quite a shock to their members and voters.

  16. Leon Wolfeson

    Oh come off it, it’s pure propaganda fluff.

    Protectionism is not left wing, which is the bulk of what he said.

  17. David Lindsay


    And global “free trade” certainly isn’t.

  18. Leon Wolfeson

    Certainly not in UKIP’s economic model, which bears a strong resemblance to mercantilism.

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  22. Leon Wolfeson

    Well, right now it’s not so much that as no coherent policy beyond vulgar libertarianism.

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