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Modernising industrial relations law is a necessity

June 15th, 2011 Posted in coalition, Industrial Relations by

Today was the day that we learnt that up to three quarters of a million public sector workers have agreed to take coordinated strike action over government changes to pensions.

They really ought to have listened to Vince. Earlier this month, the wise old Business Secretary warned delegates at the GMB conference that whilst the case for changing strike laws was not currently persuasive, “should the position change, and should strikes impose serious damage to our economic and social fabric, the pressure on us to act would ratchet up.”

Despite the recent results of Mugabesque proportions that were widely interpreted as an endorsement of anger against the Coalition, a closer look at the results makes some interesting reading:

  • 92% of NUT members backed industrial action against proposed pension changes…but on a 40% turnout
  • Likewise, 83% of ATL members voted for action…but on a 35% turnout
  • The PCS also endorsed strike action…but on a turnout of 32%

It seems somewhat strange that if so many workers are incensed with the government’s proposals that so few of them bothered to vote. Under such circumstances, one can see the compelling logic of the case for introducing a minimum turnout clause for a vote prior to strike action. In their report Keeping the Wheels Turning, the CBI has already suggested that the bar be set at around 40% in order to make the strike legal. Such a change would make it unlikely that any of the aforementioned ballots (apart from that of the NUT) would be officially permitted.

It goes without saying that introducing a minimum turnout wouldn’t drastically curb the fundamental right to withdraw one’s labour. Indeed, if there is overwhelming support for action, such as was the case with British Airways workers last year, industrial action would still take place regardless of any threshold in place. All that such a measure would do would be to prevent a minority of trade unionists imposing their will over their fellow members and wider society.

Should we not also recognise the ‘right’ of individuals not to have their daily lives interrupted due to the activities of a vociferous minority of trade unionists?

10 Responses to “Modernising industrial relations law is a necessity”

  1. Tristan Says:

    The usual arguments for giving business more power and ‘liberals’ acting as running dogs for the corporate world.

    We already have some of the most restrictive union laws in the world yet when workers wish to withdraw their labour you wish to force them to work? All so business owners can not be afraid of their employees and some people aren’t inconvenienced.

    Liberal Vision seems to be descending further and further into vulgar libertarianism in an effort to counter the socialist bogeyman when the real enemy is the corporate capitalist state – the alliance between the state and the likes of the CBI.

    The frankly feeble unions offer little resistance, yet you still wish to enfeeble them further whilst seeking to prop up the privilege which distorts the economy in favour of the corporate and politically connected. Its a sad state of affairs.

    As for legislation on turnout – why not for any government or political posistion?
    Strike votes are at least better as anyone who didn’t vote (or voted against) can still scab if they want – in elections we don’t get any choice at all whether we submit to the government.

  2. Leslie K. Clark Says:

    This piece is my own personal view and not that of Liberal Vision as a whole (see the disclaimer – so any “vulgar libertarianism” is the fault of me alone.

    Minimum turnouts for strike ballots are already in place in other European countries such as Poland and Slovakia so it is not without precedent nor is such an approach uniquely restrictive.

  3. John Says:

    We don’t have minimum turnouts to elect councillors, Mayors or MPs or for referendums, such as the recent one on AV, so why have a minimum turnout for strike ballots?

    As for Vince Cable, the thrust of his comments appeared to be: “I support the right to strike but if you actually do so, I’ll change the law so you can’t!”

  4. Martin Says:

    For all the law-changing that’s happened within industrial relations in the past forty years, the problem remains the same – a ‘them and us’ attitude between workers and management.

    ‘Modernising’ industrial relations law, as you put it, would be merely another sticking plaster rather than addressing the root cause of the problem. Namely, that workers aren’t involved enough in their businesses.

    Rather than continuing down this dead end, perhaps we should instead be taking a leaf out of Germany’s book?

  5. Mark Valladares Says:


    Tristan and John have already made the point about the inconsistency of your stance in terms of minimum turnout. And frankly, your inconsistency shouldn’t surprise me, given your use of ‘Mugabesque’, redolent as it is of individuals coerced into voting through fear.

    As a public sector union member, albeit one cynical of the motives of its leadership, that’s an image that’s rather unfamiliar to me. Union ballots are run by the Electoral Reform Society’s ballot services arm, and I vote secretly in the comfort of my own home.

    Your proposal does two things – it incentives opponents of any proposal to simply stay at home, rather than engage, an action likely to entrench the sort of one-sided outcomes that so upset you, and it reduces the freedom of the individual union member to choose whether or not to participate as, under your proposals, union officials would need to actively drive up turnout by pressurising members to vote, creating the very scenario you appear to imagine exists now.

    And you assume that union members act like sheep, unable to think or act for themselves. Just because unions representing 750,000 public sector workers have voted for strike action doesn’t mean that 750,000 pblic sector workers will be missing on 30 June. I for one am expecting to turn up to do a day’s work as usual, and I’m guessing that I won’t be alone.

    Strike action in the public sector is surprisingly rare. Giving up a day’s pay, plus a day of pension entitlement, is not done lightly, especially when most of those doing so earn less than the average wage.

    Your inconsistent approach to democratic legitimacy merely serves to infer that freedom, in your view, only applies to those of whom you approve, and that is no freedom at all.

  6. Lotus 51 Says:

    There’s a fundamental flaw in your socialist rant about capitalists wanting more draconian strike legislation to exploit the workers… is not the workers in the capitalist private sector who are proposing to strike, is it?

  7. Adam Bell Says:

    Sigh. You haven’t really got the hang of this’freedom’ thing, have you? Freedom of a non-state organisation to organise itself is pretty fundamental, unless you for some reason think organisations aren’t made up of individuals.

    I get annoyed by unjustified strike action on the Tube as much as anyone else, but the answer is not to restrict the right of those workers to strike – it’s to develop a less confrontational approach to engaging with them, along the lines of Sweden or Germany. Needlessly antagonising them by adopting an utterly illiberal line is not productive, merely spiteful Tory thinking.

  8. Leslie K. Clark Says:

    @ Tristan,
    I would never compel anyone to work. Nobody is ‘forced’ to work in the first place – individuals voluntarily choose to enter a contract with their employer.

    @ Martin,
    As an interesting aside, in Germany, civil servants do not have the right to strike.

    @ Mark,
    Use of ‘Mugabesque’ relates to the size of the majorities rather than any coercion involved. I apologise if that term has caused you offence but I could not think of a leader of a democratic society elected with a similar thumping majority.

    I never said or implied that public sector workers behave like sheep. But I imagine it will take strong-willed individuals to break any strike for fear of being ostracised or labelled a ‘scab’ or such like.

  9. Psi Says:

    @ Leslie

    I don’t like the use of a 40% threshold for democratic actions, suddenly a minority decision is able to claim to be much more legitimate.

    Also I can’t see there would be any need. You have noted that these are public sector workers. Teachers have very generous pensions by striking they are drawing attention to them, abit of a shot in the foot I think. Negotiating would be much more sensible.

    Also the civil servants are even more exposed, they will strike and, well, errr, some paper won’t get shuffled? Not exactly a convincing reason to make to the public to keep you in a job. If there is a strike and no notisable change happens it will add to the impression that there is no need for all these people.

    I am being deliberatly difficult there is much worth while work done by civil servants but they are never going to convince the public by striking and nothing happening.

    Then again just think if even 100k people went on strike for the day think og the saving to the public payroll, perhaps it is an economic act of self sacrifice? Well maybe not.

  10. Mark Valladares Says:


    Indeed, ‘Mugabesque’ is the sort of cheap jibe that only serves to indicate the weakness of an argument.

    And your lack of experience of the public sector shows when you say, “I imagine…”. That’s shorthand for, “I don’t actually know but my prejudices tell me that…”. The militant picketing of the Seventies is long gone. There are restrictions on the number of pickets allowed, secondary picketing is banned, in short, the intimidation that took place before the early Thatcher reforms is a thing of the past.

    Also, the takeup of union membership in the public sector is not what it was twenty-five years ago when I first became a civil servant. Local branches of the then Inland Revenue Staff Federation took great pride in achieving 100% membership, and persuading people to join was easy.

    Now, people remain members out of habit, to benefit for cheap conveyancing or other benefits, or because they feel that they need representation. Others opt out altogether.

    I would recommend that you do some basic research on public sector unions, their membership and their key issues before telling me how important it is to constrain the scary unions further. Or, instead, just call for the abolition of the right to organise – it would be more intellectually honest.