The battle over strikes

Articles, The NewsEditor
Queen's Speech

Before the general election both the Mayor and the Coalition made ominous noises about the need to place some restraint on the ability of the unions to call strikes and disrupt public services with only limited mandates behind them. We now have more than an idea of what the government’s proposals look like, courtesy of the Queen’s Speech last week.

The proposed Trade Unions Bill categorises transport as an ‘essential public service’ meaning that in order for strikes to go ahead in the future, ballots must meet a 50% voting turnout threshold and also a requirement that 40% of those entitled to vote favour industrial action.

The legislation will also put forward proposals to tackle intimidation of non-striking workers during a strike and will introduce time limits on a mandate following a ballot for industrial action.

London First sponsored some polling on this issue recently:

  • 56 per cent support creating a total voting threshold below which no strike would be allowed – this was double the number of those opposing it
  • Young Londoners are easily the most up for more stringent rules, with only 9% opposing it, but there was surprisingly strong support from Labour voters as well
  • When it comes to banning strikes on the Tube it is much more finely balanced: 40% pro and 42% anti

But while Londoners appear, at present, to be in favour, the unions are not. The RMT’s statement is aggressive and clear:

"The front line of defence against cuts and austerity is the organised working class and that is why the Tories and big business want to tighten the legal noose around our necks. That’s the same as it ever was and they will have a fight on their hands."

That final comment is a profound understatement. There will be a real fight over the terms of this legislation, which will have a significant effect on London.

A 24 hour rail strike looms on Thursday evening, with a 48 hour follow-up the week after. With every ballot and every strike until this legislation is passed, both the unions and government will be looking closely to see if they are able to meet the proposed threshold.

For the upcoming strike, 48% of those entitled to vote favoured industrial action, so the proposed threshold was met. A significant majority of strike action on the Tube over the last few years, however, did not.

The government will hope that this vote was a rare aberration and that pushing legislation doesn’t simply serve to motivate the unions more. Only time will tell if it does and whether this legislation hurts or helps London.