Enter stage Margaret Thatcher who basically sold us the idea that the Unions were part of “the enemy within”. So she bought in a raft of anti-union legislation that banned workplace ballots, stopped union members getting paid for going on strike and introduced notice periods for strike action. By the end of 18 years of Tory rule we had the strictest trade union laws in Europe. Whilst New Labour didn't really change anything in regards to Trade Union law, they did bring in a raft of measures that generally helped people at work including the minimum wage and Working Tax Credits.
So flash forward again and it is 2015. After a few years of Tory/ Lib Dem Government there had been a number of strikes in the education sector, the healthcare sector and of course infamous tube strikes because of a change in pay and conditions at work. So now with the Tories in government on their own, they are bringing in further anti Trade Union legislation. Their tightening up of Trade Union rights include a 50% turnout to make any strike eligible, at least 40% support for strike action in vital public services such as education and transport. Furthermore they are increasing the notice period at which you can call a strike from 7 to 14 days and the Government are going to allow companies to hire agency workers to replace striking staff. In addition if a Union official at a picket line isn't wearing an official armband, they could be fined up to £20,000.
So you may be thinking, well what is wrong with having at least half a union turnout to vote for a strike. It makes it more legitimate and the public will more sympathy with them. If the Conservatives actually believe a majority turnout means real legitimacy for a result of a ballot, why are the Local Elections and European Election results, with less than 40% turnout, legitimate? Also the Alternative Vote referendum had barely 30% turnout, yet the Conservatives at the time claimed that the result of that meant a majority of British people supported the current voting system. One rule for Trade Unions, another rule for the British Electorate it seems. Here’s an idea, if you want to increase voter turnout for Trade Union strike ballots, why not bring back workplace ballots or bring in online voting rather than arbitrarily having a minimum turnout. Personally I’d do the same for elections as well.
So increasing the notice period at which a strike can be called may seem reasonable as it means other workers not on strike can make contingency plans in regards to themselves getting into work. However sometimes negotiations take a while and things can be agreed at the last minute and most strikes are called off because of this. If you have to give more notice to strike then that gives the employees less bargaining power when fighting for their rights and means the employers call the shots. Employers bringing in agency staff to cover striking workers may again seem positive on the surface as the company don’t lose productivity and their business activities keep going so therefore this benefits the economy. However this is where the threat of strike action becomes completely pointless. If employers can replace staff like that just for going on strike then they are hardly going to care whether their staff go on strike and once again this gives Trade Unions pretty much no bargaining power when fighting to improve their members pay and conditions.
So to sum up. Yes strike action can annoy and affect a lot of people that are not Trade Union members. It means people are late or can’t get to work at all. However, the rights that we take for granted today weren't given to us willingly by employers and Governments. They were fought for by Trade Unions fighting for individual members pay and conditions as well as taking direct action collectively such as going on strike. Whether it is paid holiday, maternity leave, health and safety in the workplace, Trade Unions have benefited all of us. If we allow the Government to curtail Trade Union activity even more, there is nothing to stop them pursuing a race to the bottom on rights at work and who is going to be able to stand up for us then?
NB: For full disclosure, I am a member of Unite, which is the biggest Trade Union in the country. The Trade Union bill passed it second reading earlier this week. To help fight the bill, lobby your MPs and join the TUC’s campaign