Strike ballot restriction plans are ‘provocative’ and should be avoided, HR warns

Government plans to curb union strike powers are “provocative”, HR directors and employers groups have warned, as they urged ministers against tightening up strike ballot regulations.

Earlier this week it was revealed ministers had held secret talks about blocking nationwide strikes this autumn as departments enforce spending cuts of up to 40% and the loss of up to 600,000 public sector jobs.

The CBI has also called for amendments to strike ballot regulations, which would require at least 40% of the workforce to support the action.

But experts have spurned the recommendations. Mike Emmottt, adviser on employee relations at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, said days lost through strike action were at “historically low levels”.

He told Personnel Today: “If the government were now to change the rules on balloting it would seem just another burden on public sector employees who are already threatened by job cuts, pay freezes and, in the short to medium term, something unpleasant on pensions.

“I think it would look provocative… and it seems perverse for the government now to make balloting a tougher challenge for unions when the courts have been adding to problems of conducting successful ballots.”

Gill Hibberd, strategic director (resources and business transformation) at Buckinghamshire County Council, agreed: “There is a danger that the move will be seen as highly provocative in today’s climate. I would prefer to work with trade unions in an open and constructive way so they understand the seriousness of the current economic climate and help find solutions.

“This means though that they will also need to face the reality that jobs will be lost and terms and conditions will need to change across the public sector to reflect the market conditions.”

Stephen Overell, associate director of The Work Foundation, described it as a mistake to unpick the settlements made under Labour “merely in light of the recession”.

“We think the recession and new mood of tackling the deficit is being used as a fig leaf for old, longstanding Conservative and business concerns,” he said. “We don’t think there’s any case for it. There’s been a number of recent strikes, [but] if you look at the stats – which give a longer-term picture industrial action is extremely rare and becoming rarer over time.”

Figures from the Office for National Statistics show during the recession the number of strikes dropped from 124 in the 12 months to April 2009, to 98 in the year to April 2010.

Claire Ogden, employment expert at law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, said procedural requirements relating to industrial action are already notoriously difficult to satisfy in the UK. “Trade unions are likely to regard any such change to the law on balloting for strike action as yet another hurdle to them enforcing what they are commonly quoted as saying is a ‘right to strike’,” she added.

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