Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Double standards

So, Boris Johnson and the CBI have called for changes to the law governing strike action to make it harder for working people to defend their pay and conditions. But their minimum standards would invalidate elections closer to their own home.

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Boris Johnson has said that he wants the government to introduce legislation preventing action unless at least 50 per cent of union members in a workplace take part in a ballot and the CBI wants a minimum of 40 per cent of union members balloted to be in favour of a strike. This follows the rightwing thinktank Policy Exchange advocating similar moves last month.

Boris Johnson was elected as mayor of London in 2008 on a turnout of 45.3 per cent and received the support of only 23.9 per cent of the electors balloted. Boris’s election would have failed both his own test and that of the CBI.

Hypocrisy is not, however, limited to the political field. There are no turnout requirements for the number of shareholders participating in ballots by public limited companies – indeed many of the CBI’s members would have their ballot results deemed unlawful were they to be subject to the rules now advocated on their behalf.

Those calling for changes to industrial relations law seem to presume that abstainers must be regarding as opponents of strike action, yet offer no evidence whatsoever to suggest that this is the case.

Boris has insisted that such a law is needed to stop union leaders calling what he describes as capricious strikes on a minority turnout. This is a wilful misunderstanding of the nature and operation of trade unions and the legislative framework in which they work.

The UK already has among the toughest legal restrictions on the right to strike in the world. Far from being too lax, UK law has repeatedly been found by the International Labour Organisation, the UN and the Council of Europe to be in breach of international human rights standards by failing to provide effective dismissal protection for individual strikers.

And far from making balloting for industrial action harder, the rules on balloting should be revised to ensure that a trade union is still able to take industrial action where it accidentally fails to comply with balloting rules but the mistake would have no material impact on the outcome of the ballot. In electoral law, the outcome of an election cannot be challenged or overturned where a local authority has conducted an election substantially in accordance with the law and an act or omission did not affect the result.

Strike action is and always has been the last resort for working people when faced with threats to their jobs, pensions, pay and conditions. Those wishing to minimise the amount of strike action would better off spending their time in meaningful negotiations with the representatives of the workforces than issuing demands for arbitrary new constraints on trade union rights.

Boris Johnson has never had direct across-the-table meetings with the leaders of either of the two trade unions involved in the current London Underground dispute. Less grandstanding and more dialogue would go a long way to dealing with many of the problems that Boris wishes to avoid.

Photo: Annie Mole

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Chris Weavers

is principal official (parliamentary and trade union liaison) at NASUWT

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