Despite the occasional headlines, industrial disputes at businesses are rare. Indeed, acceptance of slow wage growth by employees during the recession was one of the reasons the UK avoided the devastating job losses that have crippled many continental economies.
But we again start the year with the threat of industrial action hanging over the UK. A walkout by train drivers in Wales has left passengers unable to get to work and further strike action over the Night Tube seems inevitable.
It’s in that context that the House of Lords will debate the Trade Union Bill next week, the key provision of which is for new turnout provisions to be put in place, requiring 50 per cent of union members to support a strike for it to be considered valid.
This is a welcome move. To give one example, a GMB-sponsored strike in 2014 saw a turnout of only 23 per cent, meaning just 17 per cent of the union’s members supported the strike.
That action saw hundreds of thousands of public servants walk out. The knock-on effects for the economy are significant; just one day of a Tube strike is calculated to cost some £48m, according to the London Chamber of Commerce.
But the Bill, though broadly welcome, misses one important opportunity.
Despite the overall drive to modernise trade union law to prevent spurious action, the government has ruled out the option of allowing unions to employ electronic balloting ahead of walkouts. If the Bill is to improve relations between unions and businesses, rather than embitter them, there should be a quid pro quo; turnout requirements should be balanced against a liberalisation of the balloting process.
Concerns about the security of the process are overblown – if the government is encouraging people to fill in tax returns online, it seems odd to restrict union ballots to postal votes. The bosses of the newly privatised Royal Mail may well mourn the loss of the additional mail, but it’s hard to see too many other losers from a change.
It is worth remembering that many disputes would still lead to strike action under the new provisions if support is wide enough, which rather suggests the cries of some union leaders that this is an attack on the right to strike ring hollow.
Counterintuitively, in fact, by forcing unions to garner a wider base of support across their membership, that industrial action that does take place would gain legitimacy and hopefully propel both sides towards the best possible solution – a negotiated settlement, without the disruption of walkouts and strikes.
The Bill is welcome; with tweaks, it could be better still.