Public sector unions angry at strike rule changes

15 Jul 15

Government plans to insist strike ballots in key services meet a minimum support threshold will deny millions of public sector workers a voice at work, trade unions have said.

Striking public sector workersPhoto: Nick Efford

Under changes set out today, ballots for all industrial action will need to meet a 50% turnout threshold to legally authorise strikes. An additional threshold for 40% approval for action from all eligible members will be applied in key public services including health, education, fire, transport, border security and energy.

Setting out the plans in the Trade Union Bill, employment minister Nick Boles said the changes would make public sector strike laws “fair for working people”.

Current rules meant a small minority of trade union members could fundamentally disrupt the lives of millions of commuters, parents, workers and employers at short notice without clear support, he stated.

“People have the right to expect that services on which they and their families rely are not going to be disrupted at short notice by strikes that have the support of only a small proportion of union members.
“These are sensible and fair reforms that balance the right to strike with the right of millions of people to go about their daily lives without last minute disruption.”

Other changes in the legislation include a new a four-month time limit on ballots that authorise industrial action in order to ensure mandates are always recent, as well as requiring a clear description of the dispute and the planned industrial action on the ballot paper. Current rules banning the use of agency workers in place of striking staff will also be lifted

Responding to the Bill’s publication, Trades Union Congress general secretary Frances O’Grady said it was “an unnecessary attack on workers’ rights and civil liberties that will shift the balance of power in the workplace”.

She added: “Getting a pay rise or defending terms and conditions will become far harder for working people. Even when ballots meet the government’s new thresholds, employers will soon be able to break strikes by bringing in agency workers.

“If ministers were really interested in improving workplace democracy they would commit to online balloting. However, they would rather silence protests against their cuts to children’s centres, libraries and social care services.”

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said the Bill proved the government was not on the side of working people.
“These unfair changes will make it much harder for nurses, teaching assistants, midwives and other public sector workers to ever strike for a pay rise or challenge the behaviour of bad employers.

“These spiteful proposals will deny millions of ordinary workers a voice at work. Strikes are rare and the decision to lose a day’s pay is never an easy one – especially for public sector workers who have suffered many years of pay restraint.”

Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said that the government should work with unions to devise ways to help improve turnout in ballots, such as electronic voting, rather than trying to limit workplace democracy.

At the civil service Public and Commercial Services union, general secretary Mark Serwotka said the plans would have no legitimacy “when they scrape through parliament on a wafer thin majority”.

Weaker trade unions meant greater inequality, he added.

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