Trade unions representing more than 4.1 million people attack Tory plans to make it more difficult for public sector workers to carry out legal strikes, Kevin Rawlinson and Sahra Ajiba report.
The government’s Trade Unions Bill, which would make it illegal to hold strike action unless there is at least 50 per cent turnout and 40 per cent or more of the people eligible to vote back such action within the core public services. Currently, there is no minimum turnout to validate a ballot and only a simple majority is required.
The Trade Unions Bill, if passed into law, would also remove restrictions on using temporary workers to cover strikes, make it more difficult for unions to rely on historic ballots to mandate strikes and address the intimidation of workers who choose to cross picket lines.
Working people need to know that they can rely on essential services so that they can get on with their lives without unnecessary disruption
The proposed changes, which would be introduced as part of the forthcoming Trade Unions Bill, were announced in Wednesday’s Queen’s speech. They were criticised by a host of unions, as well as the Trades Union Congress (TUC).
But the government insisted they would stop “undemocratic” strike action. The Bill is the brainchild of the new business secretary, who replaced the unseated former Lib Dem MP Vince Cable.
And Katja Hall, the Confederation of British Industry’s deputy director-general said: “We have long called for the introduction of a threshold, which is an important, but fair, step to ensure that strikes have the full support of the workforce when they take place.”
The general secretaries of two of the UK’s largest trade unions: Unison and Unite; as well as the heads of the Rail and Maritime Transport (RMT) union; the GMB and the Public Commercial Services union (PCS) all released statements following the Queen’s speech. They were joined by six other unions.
“Working people will be worried by a Queen’s Speech that declares open season on so many of their rights and protections,” said the TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady.
She said the plan would impose “draconian restrictions on the right to strike”, adding: “The real agenda is stopping public sector workers from fighting back against the extreme cuts and pay freezes expected in George Osborne’s Budget.”
Unison’s general secretary Dave Prentis said that the UK already has tough laws on strikes, “there is no need to make them stricter still”.
If introduced as expected, it would take a significant rebellion among Tory MPs to stop it passing into law.
A government spokesman said: “Working people need to know that they can rely on essential services so that they can get on with their lives without unnecessary disruption. They need to know that schools will be open for their children during term time and that public transport will be operating normally so they can get to work.
“Strikes should always be the result of a clear, positive decision by those balloted. That is why we will legislate to stop undemocratic industrial action and ensure that the interests of working people are protected.”
The RMT pointed out that few MPs were elected with similar levels of support as would be required for strike action. Its general secretary Mike Cash said: “This is the clearest possible case of one law for the political class and another for the working class.”
His comments were echoed by the FBU, the PCS and the left-wing think-tank Centre for labour and social studies, which said that plans were “hypocritical” from a government that introduced “elections for police and crime commissioner elections, [which] averaged at just 15 per cent” turnout.
An FBU spokesman said: “The attack on workers’ rights will continue under this Conservative government.”
The PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “Imposing a threshold of 50 per cent turnouts on union ballots is absurd when most councillors, MEPs, police and crime commissioners and the London Mayor were elected on lower turnouts. It exposes this as an ideological attack on working people fighting to defend their jobs and services.”
The Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said: “Seven million UK workers and their families turn to their unions for help. Our members are the people who clean our streets, care for our kids, work in our shops – they are not the cause of this country’s broken economy and deserve far better than the hostility directed at them by this government.
“Unite has said repeatedly that the way to increase turnouts in strike ballots is not to make it harder for people to exercise fundamental rights, but to modernise voting.”
The NUT said the government’s plans would be challenged, while the GMB said the proposals would simply “run the risk of an increase in unofficial stoppages”.
Aslef and the TSSA pointed out that David Cameron would not have been elected leader of his party in 2005 and that he returned to 10 Downing Street with an increased majority this month after his party got less than 40 per cent of the popular vote.
The teaching union ATL, the Prison Officers Association and the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association also lined up to attack the plans.