Stop viewing the trade unions as pantomime villians

The government's Trade Union Bill makes no sense and will hamstring union members' right to strike, says Cathy Warwick

Less than three months into the new parliament and MPs are off on their summer break.

Despite the brevity of this legislative window, the government still found time to introduce the Trade Union Bill. If passed, this law would hamstring union members’ right to strike by wrapping them up in the kind of red tape the government normally claims to despise.

Out goes the simple principle that union members can strike only after holding a fair and independently conducted ballot, in which a majority of votes are cast in favour of strike action and in comes a series of minimum threshold hurdles that ballots must also clear.

At least 50% of all members must cast a vote and, for certain key sectors such as health, at least 40% of all those entitled to vote must back the strike action.

These thresholds can sort of make sense if you don’t think about them too much, or for too long, so let me illustrate just how ludicrous they are with one simple example: the Royal College of Midwives’ own strike ballot in England last year.

In that vote, strike action was backed by 82% to 18%, a thumping majority on a 49% turnout. Under the existing rules, that was a clear mandate for strike action. As a result, our members took action, and our dispute was settled with a good agreement for midwives and other NHS workers.

But under the proposed new rules, it would have fallen short because the turnout was less than 50% – just. The logic of the new rules means that if a few more RCM members who opposed strike action had taken part, and had all voted ‘no’, turnout would have topped 50% and a mandate for action would have been secured, even though all the additional midwives would have voted against strike action. Confused? That is because these new rules make no sense.

It is also a tad hypocritical, given the election outcome. The government is made up entirely of Conservatives, but not only did that party fail to win the support of 40% of the entire electorate, it failed to even win the support of 40% of just the people who turned up to vote.

In fact, the only party since the second world war to have won the support of more than 40% of the electorate was the Labour party in 1951. Bizarrely, they lost that election. It is also worth noting that the Conservative party has never won the support of at least 40% of voters at any post-war election, and yet they see this as some kind of threshold of legitimacy.

This bill doesn’t flow from some deep-seated concern for democracy, it is aimed at stopping working people like midwives and nurses from being able to withhold their labour as part of an industrial dispute.

There are problems and issues in the workplace that need fixing. Take the gender pay gap, for example. In more unionised workplaces, that gap is smaller and pay rates are higher. Unions are demonstrably part of the solution, not part of the problem, and some politicians need to drop the outdated mindset that views unions as some kind of pantomime villain.

If the government wants to improve turnout in union ballots, it should change the rules to allow online voting. Any refusal to do so only leads me to suspect that the concern is not about turnout but about making it harder to obtain a legally sound vote for strike action.

We are living in a period of historically low levels of industrial action. There is simply no need for this bill. What we do need is for grown-up politicians to sit down with unions to work out how we can all improve productivity in the economy, achieve better efficiency in our public services, and secure better pay and living standards for all.

About the author

Cathy Warwick Cathy Warwick is chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives


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