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Tory Trade Union bill is an attack on a fundamental human right

Workers-Rights-are-Human-Rights-e1363086471974Under the Tories’ proposed new law, strike ballots would need a 50% turnout for industrial action to be legal. But in the case of ‘essential’ public services – health, education, transport and fire services – 40% of those voting have to have voted in favour. In other words, 80% which is the combination of the general turnout proposal and the new 40% yes vote must have voted in favour. That would make almost all strikes illegal, particularly in large and dispersed workforces where postal ballots rarely achieve this. This is a blatant attack on the rightful role of trade unions in being able to protect their members against exploitation at work – several recent polls have consistently found that more than 70% of the public believe unions are ‘essential to protect workers’ interests’.

There are several other arguments against this vindictive piece of legislation. The proposed rules don’t apply in any other elections. If only ballots with a turnout of more than 50% are to be taken as valid, then the election of many politicians including the Mayor of London would be dismissed as invalid. The new Thatcherite Secretary of State for Business was elected on a lower turnout than 50%. Indeed the current Tory government was elected on only a 22% vote of those entitled to vote in the recent general election.

A turnout threshold is irrational: it makes abstentions more powerful than votes against. Thus a ballot backing action with an exact 50% turnout would be deemed invalid if just one no vote had abstained instead. Moreover setting unrealistic thresholds for strike ballots is especially unreasonable when the form of balloting is restricted to postal ballots. Further, setting the bar so high for legally compliant strikes increases the likelihood of wildcat industrial action, and few employers would seriously wish to dismiss workers who take part in illegal industrial action especially if they are providing essential public services.

The UK already has the most restrictive strike laws of any advanced economy, and adding to them by imposing what is effectively a ban on strikes altogether is dragging Britain down the path adopted by dictators and authoritarian regimes. Paradoxically It may not even work. The most successful unions such as the RMT usually command high enough turnouts to be able to reach the new thresholds. The new law might even galvanise members who have not voted before in strike ballots. And the public may even be more sympathetic to strikers if they feel union members are being unduly victimised.

9 Comments

  1. Adam Barnes says:

    I believe you have got that wrong. The proposal is 50% of those balloted must vote, and (as now) 50% of those voting must support strike action. So as little as 25% of those balloted could support strike action for it to be legal. In “essential services”, an additional requirement would be 40% of those balloted must support strike action. Nowhere near 80%.

    1. David Pavett says:

      Michael Meacher is right that the proposal is that 40% of those eligible to vote must support the action. Thus if there are 100 voters 40 must agree to the action. If only 50 vote then this means that 40 out of 50 i.e. 80% must approve the action.

  2. David Pavett says:

    But in the case of ‘essential’ public services – health, education, transport and fire services – 40% of those voting have to have voted in favour. In other words, 80% which is the combination of the general turnout proposal and the new 40% yes vote must have voted in favour.

    What puzzles me about this is that anyone should think it sane to call a strike which does not have the express support of 50% (let alone 40%) of the people being asked to strike (I would set it higher than that). If there is only a 50% response to a ballot then clearly to reach an overall support of 40% then 80% of those bothering to vote have to approve it. But what kind of strike organisation is it that only gets a 50% return? And what kind of concept of action is it that requires less than a majority of those taking part in the action to approve it?

    Could it be that some trade unions have become accustomed to worryingly low standards of democratic participation?

    I think that the position of people like Len McClusky on this is simply untenable. What is needed is an argument from people like Michael Meacher as to why support from less than the majority of those involved is acceptable when calling for strike action.

    N.B. Please don’t reply by telling me that UK governments are elected on support from less than 40% of those voting and on only about 25% of the electorate. I know that but I do not see why anyone should think that this sets a standard for trade union behaviour. It might prove hypocrisy on the part of politicians but it does not constitute an argument for actions without majority approval.

    A turnout threshold is irrational: it makes abstentions more powerful than votes against. Thus a ballot backing action with an exact 50% turnout would be deemed invalid if just one no vote had abstained instead.

    There is no irrationality here and none has been demonstrated. Michael Meacher is confusing rationality with what he happens to agree with. He appears to think that all thresholds are wrong. This would mean that a ballot with a 20% return from members which gets just over 50% in favour (i.e. just over 10% of members) could be deemed sufficient for strike action. I think that Michael Meacher needs to go back to his drawing board for meaningful action.

    The argument that it makes abstentions more powerful than votes is also nonsense. It means that an abstention has at most the effect of a ‘no’ vote but possibly considerably less. Thus if I am opposed to strike action but don’t vote then if 50% vote with 80% supporting action then that meets the threshold. If I am in the 50% not voting then I have given up my chance to influence the outcome. By voting “no” I would have reduced support for action below 80% and thus would have blocked the strike. Thresholds do not make non-votes more powerful than votes.

    Paradoxically It may not even work. The most successful unions such as the RMT usually command high enough turnouts to be able to reach the new thresholds. The new law might even galvanise members who have not voted before in strike ballots.

    There is no paradox here. It just means that the RMT is well enough organised to be getting the sort of returns that any sensible TU organiser should deem necessary.

    1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

      I can’t help feeling that you’ve all somewhat missed the point here, at the last company that I worked for, a small and skilled manufacturing operation; shortly after I started there someone put up poster on the notice board for a union.

      The response of the management was that one of the directors calmly removed it from the notice board and tore it up in front of everyone and that was the end of that.

      These days, union, largely means only public sector and to be honest they’ve hardly distinguished themselves at places like Mid Staffs where they seem to have been both negligent and complicit in the, “appalling abuse,” there; and that without the various tales of threats and intimidation of both patient’s families and NHS staff, which based on my own experiences of trade unions in places where I’ve worked I am not prepared to simply dismiss out of hand as simple slander.

      I always used to be in a union simply for the Industrial Accident and Employment Rights; but these days many people myself included view them as simply another tier of company middle management and with much justice.

      Like the now almost completely defunct British labor party the union movement in the UK has become fat, apathetic, self serving, too often corrupt and sclerotic and of little real use to the rest of us; but particularly those people who do not work in the public sector.

  3. Peter Rowlands says:

    As I understand it, you are both wrong about the 40% requirement which applies in ‘core’ public services and requires 40% of those eligible to vote to vote in favour. This means that even if,say, there was a 50% turnout in a ‘core public service’ union and a 60% positive vote it would not be allowed as it would only be 30% of those eligible to vote. In this instance 80% of those voting, which is 40% of those eligible to vote, would need to vote in favour. I think this is what Michael means.

    1. David Pavett says:

      Peter, I think that that is what I said: “If there is only a 50% response to a ballot then clearly to reach an overall support of 40% then 80% of those bothering to vote have to approve it”.

      1. Peter Rowlands says:

        Yes, I meant Adam and Michael, whoexpressed what he meant rather obscurely.

  4. Matty says:

    When the Tories pushed through their legislation on strike ballots back in the 80’s they insisted that the ballots had to be postal. Many people protested at the time saying that compared to workplace ballots, postal ballots had far lower turnouts.

  5. Barry Ewart says:

    I actually think this is a Tory/Big Brother Boris Britain attack also on the right to be uncertain and to abstain.
    Although I have a Masters Degree at times in my union ballots I just didn’t feel strongly enough on an issue either way and abstained.
    But I have faith in my union community and was happy to go along with the majority either way and I actually think a lot of people may be like this.
    Of course this is a right wing attack on unions and must be thought and of that I am certain.
    But perhaps being uncertain is part of what makes us human.
    But in Tory Big Brother Britain uncertainty for trade union members may soon be against the law.

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