Dominic Raab is the Member of Parliament for Esher & Walton
I have huge admiration for the job done by my local fire and rescue service (which I visited twice recently to see first-hand how the profession is changing and hear about local challenges). So, I was disappointed to see the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) call a strike for Wednesday, based on their new pay and pension arrangements. The FBU rehearse their case for strike action here, and readers will make their own mind up whether or not it is warranted. I believe strike action is irresponsible. The deal offered by the government is reasonable, given the pressure on the public finances, and wider fairness towards other public services, not to mention workers in the private sector.
The FBU say 18,277 members voted in favour of striking, which is almost 80% per cent support – although that is 80 per cent of those who voted, not 80 per cent of those balloted. Equally, not all FBU members are involved in the strike. Northern Irish members were not balloted. Nor were ‘control’ members. Still, according to the FBU’s 2012 annual report, the total number of FBU members (excluding those in Northern Ireland) is 39,571. That suggests that most FBU members balloted have, in fact, refused to back strike action – unless there are over 3,000 ‘control’ members.
I called up the FBU on Wednesday and asked if they could give a precise figure for the total number balloted. They promised to get back to me. Having heard nothing, on Friday I called again. Their press officer (a nice chap) assured me the figure was ascertainable, and they would get it to me by close of play that day. Still, I heard nothing. So, I tried one final time, and put it to the FBU that there weren’t likely to be 3,000 control members. I was eventually told the figure of 39,571 was ‘about right’ as an estimate of the total number balloted but – yet again – they would provide a precise figure shortly. They never did.
As a matter of transparency, I find it surprising that the FBU did not have to hand the total number balloted. I can’t recall any strike since 2010, where that figure was not publicly available. It’s possible the FBU may later cobble together a figure showing they do in fact have support from a majority of their members. But, given my due diligence and the response I received, it’s reasonable to assume they don’t.
That brings back into play the debate about strike law reform, and the need for a voting threshold of support from 50 per cent of balloted members for strike action to proceed. Since 2011, I have been arguing in favour of such reform here and here – in particular, for emergency services where the scope for disruption is so acute. In short, if union bosses can’t muster majority support from their own members, why should they be allowed to disrupt the hard-working majority across the country?
It’s worth remembering that unions expect all their members to strike, whether or not they voted in favour. So, a threshold would also inject some democratic legitimacy into their own internal process. Far from an attack on rank and file members, it would empower them. Union bosses say MPs backing strike law reform, with less than half the vote themselves (as most are), are hypocrites. That is chaff. The fact is that everyone affected by the decisions of their MP gets to vote for him or her. But, the wider public affected by strike action don’t get a say in a strike ballot. The power to strike (and the immunity from being sued for the consequences) is unique to union bosses. It allows a minority to wield considerable power over the majority. That is why a safeguard is required to prevent abuse.
When I first raised this in Parliament, in 2011, some suggested it was an attempt to rekindle old battle lines from the 1980s, and that the public wouldn’t support reform. That year, we suffered the most days lost to strike action since the poll tax riots of 1990. YouGov polled support for the reform at 2 to 1 in favour. By, September 2012, it was three to one in favour. The case for reform remains as compelling as ever. As this week’s FBU strike demonstrates, the hard-working majority need protection from the disruption and chaos threatened by out-of-touch union leaders wielding undemocratic strike powers.