With strike ballots very much in the news, it is worth considering whether there should be a turn-out threshold for the results to stand. At present a simple majority of votes cast is enough. Given the potentially drastic impact of a strike, there is a case for requiring a majority of those balloted. This would enhance workplace democracy by putting a premium on turnout. Some argue that in a General Election not even a simple majority is required to elect an MP. But there is a difference between deciding on a strike action – yes or no – or electing an individual MP taking account of their qualities and party policy issues. It is noteworthy that in that other area of workplace democracy – trade union recognition – there is a threshold that 40 per cent of those balloted must support recognition. Conservatives introduced modern workplace democracy with the introduction of secret ballots. A reasonable ballot threshold would further encourage turnout and legitimacy.
In my last blog, I was remembering when the last Labour Government lost its grip on the nation’s finances and was damaged after a welter of strikes in 1978/1979 known as the Winter of Discontent. A number of readers have commented to me that it just does not make sense to strike in the current economic climate with the risk to the employer’s business and jobs. As though the BA strike threat was not bad enough, we now hear of a threat of a first national rail strike in 16 years after the RMT union voted for industrial action. This lunchtime RMT announced 54% of members voted for industrial action over signal workers’ job cuts. Train operators have condemned strike action. Perhaps the unions sense that the government is a lame duck and will be desperate to find a way out, hoping they will apply pressure to meet strikers’ demands. But jobs are precious and the success of business is vital to see jobs created and protected. Strikes damage business anyway, but to strike in the middle of an economic crisis didn’t make sense in 1978/1979 and doesn’t make sense now.
The last time Britain was in really serious economic trouble under Labour was in the late 1970s. Huge debts led our country to borrow from the International Monetary Fund – the lender of last resort to poor countries. The Trade Unions caused chaos with strikes and the 1978/1979 winter became known as the Winter of Discontent. It was against this background that the public turned to the Conservatives. Part of the national mood was the understanding that Trade Unions funded the Labour Party and that the Labour Government was powerless to stand up to them. Gordon Brown has tried to give the impression that he opposes the BA strike as unjustified. Yesterday at Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron asked whether the Prime Minister would advise BA workers to ignore the strike and work normally. He would not answer and wriggled uncomfortably as David pursued the point. This gives the game away – talk is cheap, but the Unite Union gives millions to Labour. If a strike is unjustified as Gordon Brown says, why not say to workers that they should work normally? The answer is that it would upset the close relationship between Union and Labour.