Tories take a big risk by limiting strike action

A thing of the past? Sam Stephenson/EPA

Parliament has officially opened and the new Conservative government has laid out its policy agenda for the next year in the Queen’s speech. One of the key proposals is to reform strike laws, with a view to curbing industrial action.

Changes would mean that strikes affecting essential public services (listed as health, transport, fire services or schools) will need to be backed by 40% of eligible union members, and a minimum 50% turnout in strike ballots. The government also proposes to lift restrictions on the use of agency staff to replace striking workers.

In the lead-up to the Queen’s speech, newly appointed business secretary Sajid Javid claimed that over the last five years, strike action has taken place where “perhaps only 10% to 15% of the members of that profession actually voted for it”. Citing the impact that strikes have on “ordinary people”, Javid said, “by increasing the thresholds it will certainly increase the hurdles that need to be crossed, but that’s the right thing to do, it’s the fair thing to do.”

Railing against authority

Recent negotiations over the proposed rail strike, which was narrowly averted ahead of bank holiday Monday, can offer some useful context here. Members of the TSSA and RMT unions were due to walk out for 24 hours, in what would have been the the first UK-wide rail strike in 20 years.

The dispute started after unions rejected a four-year pay deal, which included a bonus of £500, followed by three years of rises in line with RPI inflation. The offer would have seen pay lag behind the rate of inflation and National Rail refused to extend the “no compulsory redundancy” for the last two years of the deal. Network Rail argued staff had been comparatively well paid over the past four years, while unions feared restructuring could mean significant job losses after 2016.

A sign of trouble. tompagenet/flickr, CC BY-SA

It’s worth noting that the ballot for this strike saw 80% of RMT members in favour of strike action, on a 60% turnout: well above the threshold the new government plans to introduce. From a turnout of 52% of TSSA’s 3,000 members, some 53% voted in favour of strike action, while 79% voted for action short of a strike (members were asked to support one or more options).

Yet after days of talks at Acas – the UK’s conciliation service – the TSSA “suspended” action after receiving an improved offer, followed shortly after by the RMT. This highlights the importance of independent, behind-the-scenes assistance that allows both parties to continue to negotiate without losing face. In light of these events, the Conservative government’s proposals raise a crucial question – would it be possible to resolve disputes like this fairly, if unions’ power to call a strike were mitigated, or even taken away entirely?

Back to the future

As it stands, Acas provides a range of help, from conciliation (where a neutral third party identifies the key issues in a dispute) to mediation (where a neutral third party suggests solutions that are not binding) through to arbitration (where a neutral third party suggests solutions that are binding). Private companies may also offer similar services, while organisations – even universities like the LSE – may also have their own system of in-house mediation to, as they put it, “improve and develop working relationships without the use of formal procedures”.

But there are a set of issues with arrangements as they may actually inhibit serious attempts at settlement with the “chilling” of negotiations preventing meaningful talks with low offers and high demands across a range of issues, as sides become “addicted” to simply waiting to go to arbitration where they believe they may get what they really want. This has lead some to propose the use American style pendulum arbitration whereby the total offer or demand of one side or the other is awarded in its entirety.

If the ability to take official strikes is restricted, it could increase other forms of industrial action, such as walkouts and wildcat strikes – sudden and unexpected strikes, which lack official union support. So, one alternative is to go"back to the future.

Rather than having ad hoc arbitration, we could have permanent systems, like the Railway Staff National Tribunal, chaired by the late Lord McCarthy – my supervisor for my DPhil at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. The tribunal was the industry’s ultimate appeal court, but its rulings were not binding. McCarthy oversaw a number of union difficulties throughout his 13 years as chair until 1983.

Yet the tribunal brought its own problems. Its independence was increasingly questioned over time, and there were concerns that it produced “flip flop” decisions; alternating between the sides (irrespective of the actual veracity of the claims being considered at the time) to try to be seen as maintaining its impartiality.

Although a reversion to past practices may not be what’s needed to ensure effective industrial relations, the Conservatives must be wary of creating a vacuum by making industrial action ever more difficult – they need to put something in place. Otherwise, as it stands, Acas will be overwhelmed by its workload.