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Could stronger strike controls backfire?

The Conservatives' proposals to limit and control strike action could backfire and lead to an increase in illegal activity.

The Conservative party has called time on public sector strikes. If victorious at May’s general election, it plans to introduce measures that require 40% of eligible union members working in health, transport, fire services or schools to back industrial action (currently only a simple majority is required). In its manifesto, the party is also set to publish plans to end a ban on using agency staff to cover striking workers and place curbs on picketing.

Secretary of state for transport Patrick McLoughlin led the announcements, which he says will protect both the public and union members from militant union bosses.

Ahead of a London buses strike last month, where only 16% of those entitled to vote were in favour of striking, McLoughlin argued it was “ridiculous” so few people could cause difficulties for eight million Londoners. “Before a strike is allowed to go ahead it must have much more support from the union members and cannot be called by politicised trade union leaders,” he said.

Labour Cabinet office shadow minister Lucy Powell responded by accusing the Conservatives of playing “political games with the unions”.

“Most government ministers don’t manage to get 40% of all eligible voters voting for them at elections,” she pointed out. “The Tories didn’t get anywhere near a majority at the last election.” 

Trade union view

Unsurprisingly, trade unions representing public sector workers have also attacked the proposals. Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union general secretary Mark Serwotka says the proposals would have “serious implications for staff and HR managers”. “It is quite obviously not designed to solve industrial disputes,” he adds.

He warns that rather than make strikes less likely, in the future employers might be faced with “more militant action, if employees started to feel that the law was now so heavily stacked against them they had little to lose by breaching it”.

This warning is echoed by Trades Union Congress (TUC) head of equality and employment rights, Sarah Veale. She says increasing the majority to 40% would make it almost impossible for strikes to occur. However, she agrees an increase in illegal industrial action is likely, which would be harder for employers to contain and settle. “The workers will just walk out because they are so frustrated,” she said. “The union won’t get into any trouble, but workers will be breaking their contract.”

Veale says it is unlikely employers would dismiss workers who took such steps, but suggests the situation would impact industrial relations. This would be further aggravated if employers replaced striking employees with agency staff.

She also questions whether picketing needed any further regulation. The number of people taking part in a picket line is currently restricted to six, and pickets can be charged with criminal offences if they are abusive or try to prevent people from entering the workplace.

“People do have a right in the UK to lawful assembly and freedom of expression,” says Veale. “What’s the impact of this going to be on other areas where people have a right to lawfully assemble?” 

Vote with your fingers?

Both PCS and the TUC have called on the government to tackle the problem of low turn-outs at union ballots by allowing them to introduce online and telephone voting systems. Currently only postal ballots are allowed.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats have both pledged to introduce electronic balloting if they are elected in May.

President of the Public Service People Manager’s Association

and head of HR and OD at Hertfordshire County Council Louise Tibbert says introducing a 40% threshold could be helpful in reducing strikes. However, she believes the effect would be different across unions. “There will be some trade unions that wouldn’t be able to achieve the new criteria, but some, such as those representing firefighters, probably would,” she says.

She supports the plan to allow employers to bring in agency staff. “Most of us have contracts with agency suppliers and we might be able to get a level of cover that enables services to continue,” she says.

Tibbert dismisses claims the changes would negatively affect relations between employers and employees. She says that once workers have decided to strike, those relationships are usually already damaged.

She also doubts whether the regulation changes would prompt further illegal industrial action. “It might do, but I still think people in the public sector have to be pushed quite hard to go on strike and walk out on service users,” she says.

Tibbert’s main concern is that the Conservative Party’s plans do not address the heart of why public sector workers often chose to strike. 

Money, money, money

In 2011 and 2012, pay was the main cause for days lost due to labour disputes, according to the Office for National Statistics. Central government cuts to public sector funding are an area over which HR directors’ control is limited.

“The difficulty in the public sector, unlike a private firm, is the action we’ve seen has been driven by national conditions,” says Tibbert. “There appears to be satisfaction with local employers, but nationally some of the trade union leadership are pushing ahead on things and trying to take the membership with them.”

Clintons employment partner Layla Bunni echoes Tibbert’s concerns. “The reason strike action has taken place is because of working conditions,” she says. “If there doesn’t seem to be any movement on that then obviously you’re not going to get very happy employees.”

She believes a 40% threshold would reduce the number of strikes in the public sector. But she also predicts employers will be reluctant to take up new powers to hire agency staff during industrial action. “It’s more expensive,” she reasons. 

Spoiling for a fight

Mike Emmott, the CIPD’s public policy adviser for employee relations, warns that aggressive future government restrictions on industrial action could in fact fire further confrontation. He predicts they would drive employees to push ballots over the 40% line and hold more drawn-out industrial action.

“HR has to communicate and keep open lines between workers and unions,” he suggests. “If it was perceived that the government is looking for a confrontation, the natural response is: ‘If you’re looking for a fight, we’ll show you one’.”

The Conservative Party is due to publish full details of the plans in its election manifesto before May 2015.