The Conservative Party’s plans to increase the threshold for strike action would “effectively end the right to strike” for teachers and other key workers, a union leader has said.
If they win May’s general election, the Tories have said they will legislate to ensure that trade union ballots for strike action must be backed by 40 per cent of eligible union members in order to be valid.
The rules would cover key public sector workers – in health, transport, fire services and schools.
Furthermore, the proposals would also require that any strike action take place within three months of the ballot and would allow the use of agency staff to cover for striking workers – something currently banned. For schools in particular, there would also be a duty to remain open during strike action.
It comes after the Conservatives last year unveiled plans to force unions to secure a 50 per cent turnout in strike ballots in order for action to be lawful.
Critics have been quick to point out that only 15 Conservative MPs managed to secure the backing of 40 per cent of eligible voters in their constituencies in 2010 and that the party as a whole only secured the support of 23 per cent of eligible voters.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the proposals are a “shameless political manoeuvre” that would threaten the progress made in negotiations between the government and education unions.
He continued: “Imposing minimum levels on turnout and majorities is quite simply a restriction of a democratic right. I know that it can cause disruption when a school shuts, but everyone should question whether curtailing this right is justified or fair or safe.
“There are no restrictions on the turnout for an MP to get elected. The Conservatives won’t need 40 per cent of the electorate to vote in favour of these policies in order to implement them.
“I am not worried about my bargaining power but I am worried about the attack on the basic human right to withdraw one’s labour.”
Education unions are also concerned about the idea to impose a duty to remain open on schools.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Heads have a duty to ensure children’s safety and welfare. In the rare cases where so many staff are on strike that they cannot guarantee this, they have no choice but to close the school. I hope that this manifesto pledge would not include a requirement to keep schools open under such conditions.”
The Conservative’s proposals were defended by transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin in an article in the Daily Telegraph last week. He wrote: “Low turnouts and low ballot majorities for industrial action are becoming the norm. Of the 102 strike ballots between August 2010 and December 2014, nearly two thirds failed to attract half of union members even turning up to vote. It’s not fair that politicised trade union leaders can hold the country to ransom with demands that only a small percentage of their members actually voted for.”
General secretary of the Trades Union Congress, Frances O’Grady, said that if the proposals made it onto the statute books it would end the right to strike.
She 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.”