Toughening the strike laws

Photo of the Nov 2010 BBC strike, from the Guardian. I don’t have their permission to use the image, but they use enough of my stuff without asking permission!

There was a good piece on the Today Programme this morning — Dominic Raab MP (who seems to be good news) and Bob Crow, General Secretary of the RMT Union.  Crow, of course, is a general all-round trouble-maker and workers’ rights rent-a-quote.  Hear the exchanges here.

Mr. Raab has introduced a Bill in Parliament which would require strikes in the emergency services and transport sector to have at least 50% support, not just of members voting on the day, but of all members entitled to vote.  He points out, quite rightly, that a number of damaging and high-profile strikes have taken place with the support of only a fraction of the workers who were actually expected to go out on strike — sometimes as low as 20%.  This, says Mr. Raab, is wrong, and I agree with him.

Bob Crow argued that we accept a simple majority for the election of councillors, MPs and so on, and that if the principle of a simple majority is good enough for them, it should be good enough for trade unionists as well.  Even the May 5th AV vote, he points out, will be decided on a simple majority, with no turnout or participation threshold.  He did not mention, of course, that many of us feel that constitutional changes such as AV or devolution ought to have a threshold, and have argued for one.

Raab’s answer was that (A) an official strike confers specific legal benefits on a trade union, for example the freedom from subsequent actions for damages, and that these legal rights should require a higher standard of support; and (B) that strike action can cause huge economic damage, and in the case of Mr. Crow’s union huge disruption and inconvenience to the travelling public, and that that again should require a higher standard of support.

Mr. Raab is of course entirely right.  In the case of the election of a councillor or MP, everyone (or nearly everyone) agrees that we do need someone in the job.  Even if politicians are a necessary evil, democracy requires that they exist, and that they be elected.  So there is no dispute about having an MP — the only dispute is which one, so a simply majority seems perfectly fair.  With a strike ballot, however, this happy symmetry does not apply.  We are not choosing between different kinds of strikes.  We are choosing whether to have a strike or not, and as Mr. Raab points out, a strike is expensive for the economy and the public (and indeed for the strikers).  It seems perfectly fair, therefore, that this damage should not be imposed on all parties without a strong mandate from the workers.  Yes, they have a right to strike, but strike action, like the state of matrimony, “is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly or wantonly”.

Marriage, of course, requires the consent of 100% of the parties to the union.  It seems reasonable that strike action should require the consent of at least a full 50% of those involved.

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