Joining the picket line for public service strikes on July 10 2014. Could a picket like this soon be a criminal offence? Photo: Andrew Wiard
Conservative strike plans are an aggressive assault on our rights and our democracy
That one of the first priorities of the new government has been to push ahead with punitive new plans for strike ballots is not just a blow for union members, but a blow for UK democracy.
Politicians often say that the alternative to strikes is talking, but there is a fundamental difference between talking and negotiating. 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. This is why the vast majority of strike ballots don’t actually result in strikes but end with a negotiated deal.
But if you take away the right to official strike action, one of two things happens. Either workers end up merely asking their employer for more – with as much power as Oliver Twist brought to the negotiating table. Or you end up with hard-to-manage and destabilising unofficial action, whether wildcat strikes or mass duvet days.
No other mainstream political party in the world has launched such a fundamental attack on this basic human right.
The government’s plans for union ballots will make legal strikes close to impossible. The architects of these plans know that union ballots, particularly of large dispersed workforces, rarely meet a 50% threshold, and that a turnout threshold does not necessarily test the level of support for a strike.
What these proposals are really about is stopping in advance any opposition to the Conservatives’ plans to cut hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs over the course of this parliament.
Unions too often are the last line of defence on these issues. And the government want to make it more difficult for ordinary people, fire-fighters, nurses, midwives, and teachers to express their democratic wishes and to take industrial action in defence of their jobs and pay.
As well as increasing ballot thresholds, the Conservatives have announced that they will lift the ban on employers using agency staff during strikes – a deliberate attempt to break those strikes that do take place.
And in a sinister taste of things to come, they want to create specific new criminal offences for people on picket lines. 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. This will open up union activists to enhanced surveillance as potential criminals.
Make no mistake. The Conservatives strike plans are the most aggressive assault on basic labour rights anywhere in the developed world and will impact on union and non-union members alike.
It is essential that all fair-minded democrats fight them.