14/07/2014

Employment e-Brief – Industrial Action

As you will have read about, last Thursday there was a strike by public sector workers including council staff, teachers, fire fighters, courts staff and civil servants in protest over a number of disputes including pensions, pay caps and working conditions.

WHAT’S DIFFERENT ABOUT THIS STRIKE?

  1. The numbers of people who participated in the strike – there had been predictions from the unions that 2 million workers would participate. In the end, ‘only’ about half a million took part but that is still a significant number.
  2. The low percentage of union members who voted for a strike – even though 83% of those NUT members who did vote, voted for a strike, there was only a 27% turnout which means only 23% of the NUT membership voted for a strike. That’s not even the lowest mandate. Only 18% of the PCS membership voted for a strike (following a turnout of 28%), GMB 18% (23% turnout), Unite 14% (14% turnout) and Unison 12% (20% turnout). Only the FBU had a turnout of over 50% (55% turnout) which means 43% of the membership voted for a strike.
  3. The date of two of the ballots – the NUT ballot took place in September 2012 and the FBU’s ballot was in August 2013.

CURRENT LAW

  1. Once a union has balloted and received a ‘yes’ vote for a strike, they must take their first action within four weeks. However, further ‘discontinuous’ action can be taken over an unlimited period if it is a continuation of the same dispute.
  2. A strike can take place if it is supported by a majority of those who vote – no matter how low the turnout.

GOVERNMENT PROPOSALS

The Government said the unions had a “paltry mandate” for strike action and the case for reforms is gathering pace in the face of ballots with low levels of support. David Cameron said this week “I think the time has come for looking at setting thresholds in strike ballots.”

The proposals which are to be considered are whether there should be:

  1. a limit on how long a ballet is valid for – in order to prevent action being taken years after the ballot.
  2. a minimum percentage turnout threshold – most union ballots in favour of strike action have a turnout of around 25%. The CBI wants a 40% minimum. In 2010, during a strike on London Underground, Boris Johnson said a 50% threshold in strike ballots was appropriate.
  3. strike bans on essential workers – such measures currently apply to the police, but could be widened to include teachers or health workers.

The Tories will only move forward with these proposals if they get an overall majority at the next general election.

ARGUMENTS TO THE CONTRARY

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said “The number of working days lost to industrial action is low. Instead of ill-thought out and unnecessary changes in the law, a better use of the prime minister’s time might be to come up with ways to ensure that Britain’s hard pressed public sector workers begin to share in the economic recovery.”

A Labour party spokesman said Mr Cameron’s comments were “just another example of him making the situation worse by ramping up the rhetoric, rather than trying to solve the problem”.

MY VIEW

The law needs changing. There was simply too little support for last week’s strikes. If the Government successfully use it as a means of bringing in the proposed changes, the unions only have themselves to blame because:

  • they overestimated the empathy which private sector workers have with public sector workers (I’m thinking primarily of final salary pensions);
  • they (with the exception of the FBU), only had a mandate to strike from a minority of their members; and
  • the RMT’s reliance on, what in my view is, an historic ballot suggests they knew that if they held a fresh vote they would not get a mandate to strike.

The Government has played a shrewd ‘hearts and minds’ game with those in the UK who do not work in the public sector. The unions should have used new ballots to keep the issues fresh in the minds of their members and the public and provide a fresh and clear mandate for action. That would enable the issues to be highlighted and sympathy to be retained. The failure to do so made it appear that the strikes were all about people grabbing for more pay when the truth was more complicated.

Given the disruption which a strike causes, if it is not even supported by the unions’ members, it risks alienating the rest of the country.

If the unions don’t police themselves better, the Tories will get their changes into law. Union membership has halved since 1980 and further legislation which limits their effectiveness may well result in even less membership.

To discuss this e-Brief in more detail, please contact a member of the Employment team.