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12.01.15

Tories’ public sector union proposals ‘effectively end the right to strike’

The Conservatives have announced manifesto plans to curb the ability of public sector unions to call a strike, in what Lib Dem business secretary Vince Cable has dubbed “a brutal attempt to strangle the basic rights of working people in this country”.

Under the plans, which will be included in the Tory manifesto, industrial action in health, education, transport and fire services will only be possible with the support of at least 40% of all eligible union members.

Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin said it was “only fair” that the ‘rights of unions’ were balanced with the ‘rights of taxpayers’. “It is wrong that politicised union leaders can hold the country to ransom with demands that only a small percentage of their members voted for.”

He said that of the 102 strike ballots under the Coalition, nearly two-thirds failed to attract even half of the workforce. In some cases, strikes have gone ahead with the support of as few as one in 10 workers.

Planned bus strikes in London tomorrow would not go ahead under the proposed rules: turnout in the ballot was 19%.

The Conservatives say they would also seek to end the ban on using agency staff to cover for striking workers and conduct a review of minimum service levels required in key services to keep them running during strikes.

Writing in the Telegraph, McLoughlin said: “People can’t go to work to earn a living when the trains stop running. Parents have to stay at home to look after their children if schools are shut. Patients can’t get treated when ambulances don’t run or hospitals close.”

He described the plans as “radical proposals that will not just support hardworking British people – but will also restore confidence in the trade unions”. He wrote: “This is not war on the trade unions. It’s tough love.”

The Tories had previously announced plans to ban strikes if fewer than 50% of union members had voted. This new higher threshold would only apply to key public services.

The party’s previous attempts to curb the rights of workers have been frustrated by their coalition partners, one of whom has already spoken out against these new plans. Vince Cable said: “Setting a mandatory 40% level of support for strike action seems odd when MPs do not need to reach such a high hurdle to get elected. There’s no doubt these ill-conceived Tory plans would have major implications for other democratic elections, from MEPs to police commissioners.

“Industrial relations in the UK are good and the Conservatives would do well to turn their attention to creating a fairer society.”

The announcement has also prompted predictable fury from unions, who have pointed out that David Cameron is prime minister despite his party only receiving 36% of the vote in the 2010 general election — on a turnout of 65%.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “The Conservatives know that this threshold will effectively end the right to strike in the public sector. No democracy elsewhere in the world has this kind of restriction on industrial action. It is a democratic outrage, especially as the Conservatives have opposed allowing secure and secret online balloting – the one measure guaranteed to increase turnouts.

“We know they plan to get rid of a million public sector jobs and cut the value of public sector pay every year in the next parliament if they win the election. Now they are also going to make it impossible for public sector workers to resist.”

RMT general secretary Mick Cash added that it was "no surprise” that the Tories are demanding new legislation which will “tighten the noose of the anti-union laws around worker's throats”.

He added: "These same old Tories are elected on pathetic turnouts with minority support but they want one form of democracy for a corrupt political class and another for the organised working class. They will be fought tooth and nail. "

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said the proposed measures would "shift the balance completely in favour of the government and employers, and away from dedicated public servants".

He added: "The UK already has tough laws on strikes – there is no need to make them stricter still."

GMB general secretary Paul Kenny pointed out that only 15 Tory MPs had the backing of 40%or more of those entitled to vote in their constituencies.

(Image credit: Tim Goode)

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