With Chancellor George Osborne’s first Budget set to cause untold misery among public sector workers tomorrow, employers’ organisation the CBI has suggested it might be a good time to change the laws on industrial action, just in case. For instance, it says, creating a minimum turnout for a vote before a strike goes ahead could prevent the UK from having to endure ‘crippled’ public services. But would it have the desired effect?
According to the CBI, a strike ballot ought to have the support of at least 40% of members before it can be deemed legal (and then a majority vote in favour before the strike could take place). At the moment, there’s no minimum turnout required – so the proposals would prevent industrial action being pushed through by a ‘relatively small number of particularly active’ union members, it suggests. The CBI says it would also like to make it easier for firms to make collective redundancies, by reducing the consultation period from 90 days to 30 days - as well as giving private sector employees who belong to a union the right to opt out of collective bargaining.
The measure would have prevented the threatened strike by Network Rail workers, which was blocked by a High Court judge after just a third of the balloted members chose to vote. Likewise, it would have stopped both last June’s tube strikes, which received just 38% of union members’ support, as well as civil service strikes in March over redundancy payouts, which had a 30% turnout. On the other hand, it wouldn't have done BA much good: in the two strike ballots taken since December, 92% and 81% of balloted members voted in favour of walking out. So fairly unanimous, then (a third week of industrial action is now imminent, and with no sign of an agreement, Unite is already talking about more strikes in August).
The CBI's basic theory is that the UK's flexible labour market has minimised some of our recessionary pain, so the Government should be trying to make it easier for businesses to respond quickly and flexibly to fluctuations in demand. But while this is an argument that will no doubt play well with UK plc (and possibly with the Government), it's gone down like a lead balloon with unions, who'd argue that UK law already makes it incredibly difficult for workers to strike (since there are so many legal hoops to jump through). TUC general secretary Brendan Barber reckons the proposals would ‘almost certainly breach the UK’s human rights obligations’ - and we can see that it might not do a great deal for employer/ employee relations.
Besides, as far as the public sector is concerned, the scale of the imminent cuts is likely to provoke such widespread opposition that insisting on a 40% minimum turnout might not necessarily mean fewer strikes anyway...
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