Legislating against coordinated strikes

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Laura Chamberlain asks if strike laws should be changed with the UK facing potential mass strikes.

With up to 500,000 people having protested against spending cuts on 26 March and unions threatening coordinated strike action over pension reforms it seems increasingly likely that the Government’s “last resort” tactics to battle widespread strikes could become a reality.

Ed Goodwyn, partner at Pinsent Masons, says contingency planning by employers can help minimise disruption to an employer’s business.

Despite some isolated scenes of violence at Saturday’s rally, union leaders and politicians have stressed that these were the actions of a minority, and TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said that, overall, the march had been “good-natured”.

The TUC says that the message of the march was that there is an alternative for the Government to its economic programme, which the TUC says is “causing mass job losses and wrecking our public services”.

But business secretary Vince Cable has responded to the protests by saying that, although the Government is listening to trade unions, the protests will not cause it to change its basic economic strategy.

Additionally, recent reports say that the Government is preparing for the possibility of widespread strikes by setting up a “war room” to identify key areas of vulnerability to strikes and investigate measures to deal with this threat.

Reports suggest the Government is preparing for a struggle against strikes and, with business groups calling for measures such as an end to national collective pay bargaining and a ban on strikes in essential services, it looks like the unions may have quite a battle on their hands.

quotemarksWe’re going to have more industrial action in the public sector, and it’s not just going to be about the cuts.”

Cary Cooper,
professor of organisational psychology and health,
Lancaster University

So how likely is it that the UK could face widespread industrial action in the face of austerity measures?

According to a recent survey by recruitment website totaljobs.com, more than half (52%) of public sector workers say that they would consider strike action in the face of job cuts and changes to pensions.

Strike threat over public sector pensions reforms

Unions have threatened mass walk-outs and strikes if the Government does not negotiate on measures proposed in Lord Hutton’s report on public sector pensions, which include increased payments, working for longer and a reduction in the value of existing pensions.

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University, believes that in a time of wage freezes, job cuts and rising inflation, a rise in industrial action in the public sector is inevitable, and pensions are not the only issue that the Government should be concerned about.

“We’re going to have more industrial action in the public sector, and it’s not just going to be about the cuts,” says Cooper. “It will also be about the major growth between what the private and public sector are getting paid, while inflation is eroding standstill wages,” he continues, adding that the private sector may also see a rise in industrial action as inflation outstrips pay awards.

However, Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), believes that extensive strike action is unlikely.

“I still can’t believe that there will be widespread action on pensions, but if there is an issue that would provoke action, that is it,” he explains.

“It is unlikely we will see prolonged industrial action on any of these issues in the public sector because these workers don’t want to lose pay, they don’t believe their action would, in the end, turn the tide in favour of the course they prefer and they know there’s no money to do so.”

This is a theory echoed by the Public Sector People Managers’ Association (PPMA), which says that it is important for trade unions, the Government and public sector employers to maintain a constructive dialogue.

quotemarksI still can’t believe that there will be widespread action on pensions, but if there is an issue that would provoke action, that is it.”

Mike Emmott,
employee relations adviser,
CIPD

Anne Gibson, incoming president of the PPMA, argues: “Of course, trade unions will be concerned about protecting their members as far as possible and will lobby for alternative solutions to redundancy programmes.

“But in the experience of PPMA members, trade unions, like their members, are realistic about the issues facing the public sector.”

Government seeking to limit impact of large-scale industrial action

Yet with widespread strikes remaining a possibility, it is no surprise that the Government is considering ways to limit the impact that large-scale industrial action would have on the running of frontline services.

Business groups have been calling on the Government to consider a range of options to tackle coordinated strike action.

The Institute of Directors recently called for an end to national collective pay bargaining in the NHS and education sectors, and last year the CIPD said that the Government should prepare for the possibility of widespread strike action by considering a number of options, including banning strikes in essential services.

The CIPD stressed in its Developing Positive Employee Relations report that banning strikes should only be used as a “last resort” and that the Government “should avoid this situation at all costs as it would mean any attempt to lead through consensus had failed”.

But how plausible is it for the Government to take such an extreme approach to tackle mass strikes?

Changes to strike laws a last resort

The Chancellor, George Osborne, signalled in January that he is prepared to consider changes to strike laws as a last resort to push through austerity measures, but added: “I hope we never get there, because I hope we can have a mature, grown-up conversation.”

quotemarksThe UK already has some of the toughest laws on strike action in the developed world and there is no need to further restrict this basic human right.”

Brendan Barber,
general secretary,
TUC

Indeed, although the CIPD has urged the Government to consider options to tackle widespread strike action, it has warned that such measures should not be taken lightly.

Emmott argues: “Our line is that any Government would want to consider in advance whether there are circumstances in which it would need to change the law but it needs to be very cautious.

“The idea that the best way of fighting industrial action is by making it unlawful is misguided.”

Emmott adds that, with the Government setting out to maintain a strong level of public support for the spending cuts, targeting unions or particular workers would go against its claim that it is acting fairly and in the interest of the country as a whole.

Despite feeling optimistic that the Government will not change stike laws, the TUC warns that the UK already has strict legislation on industrial action.

Barber says: “The UK already has some of the toughest laws on strike action in the developed world and there is no need to further restrict this basic human right.

“Workers are understandably worried about wages falling behind inflation; rising unemployment and a further deterioration of working conditions, each as a direct result of Government policy. But restricting the right to strike would be the worst possible response to the crisis.”

Barber believes that the Government should look instead to focus on improving labour market prospects, including job-support programmes and measures to encourage growth.

The PPMA says that it is unlikely that either the unions or the Government will resort to their emergency tactics but it believes that public sector organisations should prepare for the possibility of widespread strikes.

“There should be robust procedures in place to ensure that, if strike action did take place, it would not affect the most vulnerable and that it would be proportionate,” explains Gibson.

“Public sector employers should already have contingency plans in place to deal with strikes.”

Government risks provoking illegal strikes

There is also speculation that the Government may run the risk of provoking illegal strikes or alternative forms of action should it ban certain workers from striking.

Professor Cooper comments: “The unions are not stupid. What they might do instead of striking is work to rule. For example, if you take nurses, they don’t have to clean up and do bedpans. They might stop doing those things if they are not allowed to strike.”

He also warns that imposing bans on workers would have negative implications on the workforce itself: “Morale will be bad because, on top of everything else, you’re taking away the only weapon they have.

quotemarksThe unions are not stupid. What they might do instead of striking is work to rule.”

Cary Cooper,
professor of organisational psychology and health,
Lancaster University

“First, you’ve frozen all their wages for a couple of years, and then you say ‘the only tool you have to fight this, we’re taking it away’. I don’t think Osborne will want to do that.”

But it is not only the Government which has to worry about losing public support. Emmott and Professor Cooper agree that in order to instigate mass strike action, the unions will need public support for their cause.

Emmott says that, at the moment, public opinion seems to be holding up well in support of the need for cuts. However, he adds that last weekend’s protests may show how well-judged the unions’ campaign against the cuts is.

“It may be the kind of mixed set-piece that could just have the potential to shift public opinion,” he explains.

Yet with the TUC calling strike action itself a “last resort”, it looks as though the potential for widespread industrial action and changes to strike laws is dependent on a breakdown of communication and negotiation between the Government and the unions.

For now at least, it seems a remote possibility. But if no middle ground can be found, it may be that the Government’s “last resort” will become a reality.