So the Tories plan to put even tighter restrictions on union strike ballots. What’s more, they also plan to make any breach of the picketing code of practice a criminal offence. We should be in no doubt. If they win the next election these measures could shackle our unions, effectively handing extra bargaining power to employers. Lawful strikes will be all but impossible to organise, meaning workers will lose the only real sanction they have in the face of an employer that is not prepared to reach a reasonable settlement.
Supporters of the Tory proposals will claim that people are intimidated into taking strike action, yet they offer no evidence to support this. If this was true then surely we’d have far more strikes. But in reality strikes are not that common. Most workers have never been on strike; and anyone who has, knows it is a last resort. Nor is it something entered into lightly. To vote yes to action means losing pay, and requires careful consideration of the facts.
It is also wrong to suggest that groups of supposedly “hard line union militants” deliberately seek confrontation. No, the circumstances that lead a union into holding an industrial action vote come about when negotiations completely breakdown, and all other doors to settlement are closed. Even then a union will weigh-up what industrial action is likely to achieve, and the likelihood of securing a mandate from its members.
In my view the anti-union rhetoric being used by the Tories is just window dressing and doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. After all, no one is suggesting that low turnouts in local council elections are not legitimate, even though they rarely exceed 50%. So why single out industrial action ballots because of low turnouts? If it was really a question of democracy then why not make it easier for people to vote by using smart phones and computers for example?
To me the answer is clear. By shifting the balance ever more in favour of employers, the powerful corporations will not be fettered by the checks and balances of collective bargaining. The division and inequality we already see in our society will then surely heighten.
But as well as stamping out strikes generally, under this proposal a future conservative government would benefit specifically by stopping strikes in the public sector. With no effective organised resistance from the workforce, the government could have a free hand to push through whatever reforms it wants, cutting jobs, further slashing pensions, and undermining terms and conditions as it sees fit. I hope I am wrong, but I wouldn’t be surprised if such a scenario was one of the government’s hidden aims behind their proposals. Let us just hope that these plans never see the light of day.