A few weeks ago, Francis Maude presented proposals for trade union reforms. The technicality of the terms involved – ending the rolling mandate and the system of check-off – points to the fact that they were procedural changes rather than big box office policies. As I wrote at the time, they were worthwhile but insufficient by themselves.
Happily, they are no longer alone. The Conservative Party is reportedly planning to go into the next election with a policy of requiring majority mandates for public sector workers to go on strike – ending the current system by which strikes are often called on the basis of a tiny turnout.
This is welcome news. The Government has been at its best when it is radical for the good of the country, and this is just such a decision – public sector unions would retain the right to strike, but the people would only suffer disruption to their services if a true majority of union members had voted for it. Far too many strikes in recent years have been led and voted for only by a small, militant minority, and their (often party political) tantrums hurt service users.
This week offers a good example of such action. The NUT are set to walk out on Thursday, backed by three other public sector unions. The NUT’s action alone will cause disruption to huge numbers of parents and cost kids a day of education, all on the basis of a ballot held two years ago with a turnout of only 27 per cent. That is an outrage, and a responsible government should act to prevent it happening again.
Inevitably, the left are trying their best to throw up a smokescreen on the issue. In yesterday’s Times, Tim Montgomerie exploded the nonsensical argument that low turnouts justify strikes because people sometimes don’t vote in elections:
‘Union leaders complain that local councillors are elected by only small minorities of voters yet those elections are never disqualified because of poor turnout. But it’s not a fair comparison. People who abstain can’t complain at the result if they had a right to vote. By contrast, commuters, parents and taxpayers are often powerless to stop disruption of public services on which they depend. Their interests would start to be protected by participation thresholds in strike ballots.’
Others, including some Tories, are concerned that action against illegitimate strikes may prove unpopular at the ballot box – both among the electorate at large and among Tory-voting union members. It’s a reasonable consideration, but it should not be overstated.
The Sun on Sunday‘s polling found most voters would go even further and ban nurses, doctors and firefighters (though not teachers) from striking at all. The majority mandate proposal is far less drastic than that.
The relationship with Tory-voting union members is more complex. We know, again thanks to The Sun on Sunday, that almost a quarter of the union members they polled intend to vote Conservative – that’s a significant number of people whom we ought to be wary of alienating.
Really, we need better data to understand their concerns and motivations – I’d be surprised, for example, if they overlapped much with the minority of enthusiastic strikers. Indeed, many of them may well be embarrassed by the actions of their more militant colleagues, having joined their union primarily for practical reasons of representation, protection and advice.
The important thing is working out how to communicate these reforms to them in a positive way: this is no attack on unions or union members, it is a reform to ensure the power to strike is in the hands of the democratic majority of unionised workers rather than a radicalised, partisan minority. On that basis, plenty trade union members could and should be persuaded to support the Government’s actions. I suggested three ways to woo those voters last summer – it’s encouraging to see that ministers have adopted one in recent days by drawing a distinction between good and bad unions, but there’s much more to do.