I don’t know if Conservatives hate or fear unions. It could even be both. How else to explain the latest planned attack on workplace democracy as reported in the Independent on Friday? We know that lots of people on the political right can’t cope with the fact that workers aren’t always inclined to put up with attacks on their jobs, terms and conditions and sometimes want to fight back.
That’s why its hardly surprising that the union haters on the Tory benches in Parliament and who populate the right wing fringe groups posing as think tanks want to make it more difficult for workers to go on strike by subverting the basic principles of democracy. The plan is apparently to introduce turnout thresholds in strike ballots either in relation to the overall turnout or the percentage voting for a strike.
The political intent of this is demonstrated by the fact that those calling for thresholds for industrial action ballots seem quite happy to grant legitimacy to other elections where there’s been less that popular support for the winner.
So lets hope for the sake of decency none of the Tories elected as Police Commissioners last year – average national turnout 15% – support such a move. We might also expect the same of Tory MEPs – national turn out in the 2009 Euro elections 34% .
It’s highly likely however that this campaign against democracy will be able to count on the support of the current Mayor of London; despite him being re-elected last year with less than 50% of both first and second preference votes and on a turnout of 38%.
And let’s not forget that the party behind all of this received the support of just 36% of the electorate at the last General Election.
Certainly the least that could be said is that these elected representatives have a less convincing mandate than, for example, Unite did when it balloted its tanker drivers (69% in favour of as strike on a 77% turnout) and its BA cabin crew (72% turnout).
Of course I’m being selective but so are the union haters when they cite low turnouts. The difference is that strikes don’t always take place when turnouts are low and support for them (at least in the ballot) is limited. But we are of course stuck with politicians and the decisions they make even when the majority of the electorate vote against them or not at all.
We’re not even going through a period where there is a particularly high level of industrial unrest. The recent Workplace Employment Relations Study found that only 4% of workplaces experienced a strike in the 12 months prior to the survey. I should also add that UK unions already operate within one of the most restrictive legal frameworks in Europe.
You’d expect the organisation that represents employers to reflect the state of industrial relations as it really exists and not as its imagined by the Tory far right, but on this issue at least the CBI appears more than happy to join in with the extremists.
In a speech last year the CBI’s Deputy Director General called for a threshold test to ensure strikes always have 40% support of the membership AND a majority of those who actually vote. And for good measure, the organisation that we frequently hear railing against red tape also called for statutory recognition ballots every three years to ensure that unions retain the support of their members. Obviously the proportion of employees who are members of the union isn’t good enough for the CBI.
It’s easy to see that what is developing is not a defence of democracy or attempt to establish workplace harmony. It is in fact the exact opposite: an attack on basic democratic principles and even human rights. It comes from the same distorted ideology that says making it easier to sack workers and making workplaces less safe creates jobs.
If the CBI and others are genuinely interested in good industrial relations they would be better off joining unions and the TUC in calling for practical policies that grow the economy and create quality jobs rather than backing ideologically motivated measures that undermine the basic employment and human rights of workers.