Strike laws: too tough or not tough enough?

18 February 2014

Londoners breathed a collective sigh of relief last week when the second bout of planned strike action by the RMT and TSSA unions against plans to close a number of London Underground’s ticket offices was called off, following a mediation with London Underground. Not only were commuters spared severely disrupted journeys, but companies were spared the consequential impact of reduced productivity on their businesses. If the estimated statistics of the Federation of Small Businesses are believed, a loss for the economy of around £6 million was the result of the previous week’s two day strike, and it can be assumed that a similar loss would have resulted should the second strike action have gone ahead.

It is such losses to the economy that have long caused business groups and certain politicians to campaign for more stringent and restrictive strike laws. Currently the law requires only a simple majority of those voting in the ballot to vote in favour of a strike, for strike action to be lawful. Many have argued that because voting turnout tends to be low, and because those abstaining from voting are more likely to be opposed to strike action than in support of it, in real terms it is possible for a small minority of the workforce to call a strike. It was this thinking in 2011 that led the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, the Confederation of British Industry and the Policy Exchange think-tank, to lobby David Cameron to change the laws on strike balloting to provide that a strike is only lawful if a majority of those entitled to vote (rather than just those who do vote) are in support of strike action.

Conversely, trade unions have long been arguing for less restrictive strike laws, on the basis that the current law’s complexity presents them with unduly onerous administrative hurdles when seeking to organise official industrial action, and that the stringency of the current law compromises the European Convention of Human Rights. They have argued for an urgent need for reform on the basis of a succession of cases in which the courts ruled out industrial action on what were said to be minor technical grounds.

It appears then that we are left with legislation which is deeply unsatisfactory for both companies and trade unions. It seems most likely, however, that if there is to be reform, it is to be in the favour of the former. One change which may be in the pipeline is a toughening of the current strike laws in respect of certain services which are deemed “essential services”. It is thought that the Conservative party could promise to classify the London Underground as an essential service as part of its next manifesto. The result of this proposal would be that a minimum service would have to be provided by London Underground workers. It is also predicted that the Conservatives are considering revising the relevant thresholds so as to ensure a majority of union members who are entitled to vote are required to vote in favour of a strike for it to go ahead, rather than just a majority of those who actually vote. Boris Johnson has supported this, saying that he considers it reasonable for vital public transport functions, such as the London Underground, to be subject to such minimum thresholds.

Whether these changes will come about is yet to be seen. Some consider that we are only likely to see significant change should there be a substantial increase in the level of industrial action in this country, which seems unlikely on account of the dramatic reduction in the level of strikes taking place in the UK over the last few decades (a reduction from the 12.9m days lost through strike action on average every year in the 1970s to just 248,800 days lost in 2012, according to figures published in The Sunday Times and the Financial Times). Despite this, last week’s strikes certainly seem to have brought the current strike laws back on the agenda.

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