Business secretary Vince Cable said in a speech to the GMB conference that although the case for changing the law was currently not compelling, “should strikes impose serious damage to our economic and social fabric, the pressure on us to act would ratchet up.” One proposal that is being pushed by business lobbyists is that strike ballots should have to achieve a 40 per cent turnout for a strike ballot to be valid.
However, despite Cable’s words the government are reluctant to legislate on this issue and any change is still a distant prospect, experts have said.
“Vince Cable appears to be firing a warning shot while also offering reassurance that the government is not currently planning a change in the law on strike ballots,” said Ed Goodwyn, partner at law firm Pinsent Masons. “It’s a nuanced message but one with an inherent weakness.
“The reality is that any actual change in the law on ballots will need legislation and therefore cannot be done overnight. If the public sector unions see the government actually taking steps to change the law, they are likely to bring forward their ballots to get these through under the existing rules. The difficulty for the government is that any move to change the law could precipitate the very action they’re trying to dissuade the unions from taking.”
Since in reality the number of strikes over the last few years has been low, the government are taking the attitude of not fixing what isn’t broken, he added.
Industrial relations expert Andy Cook, chief executive of Marshall-James said;
“To say to unions, ‘If you go on strike, we will punish you with legislation’, seems to really throw down the gauntlet to public sector unions who are looking for an excuse to co-ordinate mass action across the public sector,” said Cook. “The danger here is that the government has raised this issue in a way that may influence the silent majority into action.
“There is no question that strikes actioned by a minority of the workforce or a minority of the union members within that workforce can be daft as it allows a small number of people to cause a disproportionate amount of disruption; but industrial relations issues are wider than the law.