TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady has attacked Tory proposals to restrict strike ballots. The Conservatives want to introduce a 50% turn out threshold, reform picketing rules, reform strike mandate law to require unions to provide specific details …

Tim Lezard Europe, UK,

Frances TUCTUC general secretary Frances O’Grady has attacked Tory proposals to restrict strike ballots.

The Conservatives want to introduce a 50% turn out threshold, reform picketing rules, reform strike mandate law to require unions to provide specific details about the nature of a dispute and requite unions to set out the exact form of a strike (i.e. time of year, length of action) on the ballot paper.

Speaking at a press conference on the first day of the 2014 TUC Congress, Frances O’Grady said: “The key message of this year’s congress is Britain needs a pay rise and I also expect many of the debates on the floor to focus on the importance of the coming general election for people at work.

“Today, I want to highlight the threat posed by the Conservative Party’s promised manifesto proposals on strike ballots.

“Because these proposals are designed to make unions weaker. And if unions become weaker, then the chances of people winning a pay rise, improving living standards and tackling inequality in Britain today will become a good deal harder.

“The Conservative Party is not just proposing a few more bureaucratic obstacles that will make life a bit more difficult for trade unions.

“Taken together, they would effectively ban strikes by the back door. And, on top of that, they would open up elected union leaders to increased surveillance by the state.

“They are not just an attack on fundamental liberties. They will act to lower living standards for the majority of working people – whether or not they are union members.

“The Conservative proposals are three-fold.

“First they impose a turn-out threshold of 50 per cent. A threshold no other ballot in Britain is required to meet and that many would fail. For example, this threshold has never been met in elections as important as that for the London Mayor or for Police commissioners. European and local government elections would also fail the test.

“It is an irrational, inconsistent and anti-democratic test. For example, a 49 per cent vote for action with none against would be invalid, while a narrow 26 per cent to 25 per cent victory for action would be legal. It makes an abstention more powerful than a vote against.

“If the Conservative Party really cared about democratic participation then it would talk to the TUC about our proposals for electronic ballots.

“Compulsory postal votes were introduced when the post was our main means of communication. Now a lot of mail is junk mail or bills, and for many people life has moved on-line and onto smart phones. That’s why the TUC has argued for the right to use modern balloting methods.

“But the government has refused to grant union members the right to vote securely and secretly on-line and the Conservative Party won’t even listen to our case.

“Secondly, the Conservative proposals imposes lots of new duties on unions on the way ballots are conducted and how they communicate with members.

“Of course unions want to communicate properly with our members. And our members are the first to tell us if we get it wrong.

“But as soon as you start to set it out in law, all you are doing is giving employers many new ways of frustrating the democratic will of union members, by giving them more ways to challenge ballots in the courts.

“Thirdly, the Conservatives  want new specific criminal offences for people on picket lines. There are already strong public order laws in the UK and I am not aware that any police force has asked for anything extra.

“Yet the Conservatives are proposing that if a seventh person joins a peaceful and good-natured picket line, all seven could be prosecuted and given a criminal record.

“New specific technology offences will mean strikers will face tougher legal restrictions on Twitter than other people. And they will open up union activists to enhanced surveillance as potential criminals.

“These proposals are not an answer to how we can increase turnout. They are an answer to those who want to stop strikes, intimidate staff and give more power to bad bosses.

“So we now know that if a Conservative government is elected it would make strikes so difficult that there would be no effective right to strike in the UK.

“Yet the right to freedom of association is a fundamental human right, that includes the right to form independent trade unions and the right to collectively bargain.

“Dictatorships and authoritarian regimes routinely suppress trade unions and lock up strikers.

“Everyone who cares about civil liberties should be worried.

“But if that is not a sufficient reason to oppose these proposals, then let’s look at what an effective ban on official strikes would mean for ordinary working people.

“Politicians often say that the alternative to strikes is talking, but there is a difference between talking and negotiating. It’s the difference between begging and bargaining. The truth is, you only get real negotiation when there is power on both sides of the table.

“Collective bargaining works because both sides understand what the other can deliver and there is an incentive to settle. This is why the vast majority of genuine negotiations do not result in strikes but in an agreement.

“But take away the right to official strike action and you place all the cards in the employer’s hands.

“Unions can ask the employer for more – but they have about as much power as Oliver Twist brought to the negotiating table.

“The only alternative is that you end up with hard to manage and destabilising unofficial action, whether that’s wildcat strikes or mass sickies.

“Of course, it is not just union members who have suffered the longest decline in living standards since the 1870s. And it is not just union members that will lose out.

“Union agreements often set the going rate for the job in non-union workplaces too. Undermine collective bargaining and you undermine everyone’s pay.

“Opinion polls show that a strong majority of people believe unions are essential to protect the interests of working people.

“Strikes often attract broad public sympathy.

“Many economists recognise that those countries that have strong unions and broad collective bargaining coverage are more likely to have better living standards and less inequality.

“Conservative MPs have told me in private that they see no need for such measures. Perhaps it appeals to some Conservative Party donors or potential UKIP defectors, but it won’t win votes.

“The Conservative Party should be focusing on how to improve living standards, rather than attacking unions which are the last line of defence for ordinary workers and their pay packets.

“The Conservative Party slogan at its last conference was ‘For hard-working people’.

“With it’s promised attacks on unions, I assume that this year it’ll read– ‘For working people harder, for less pay.’

Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner said: “Thresholds that would remove Cameron and his millionaire Tory cabinet from office.

“We can’t address wealth and income inequality without having strong trade unions, employment rights and effective collective bargaining.”

 


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Tim Lezard

Campaigning journalist, editor of @Union_NewsUK, NUJ exec member; lover of cricket, football, cycling, theatre and dodgy punk bands

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