Widespread action could trigger changes to strike laws, says Cable

Business secretary Vince Cable today warned that the Government would consider making changes to strike laws should the country be faced with widespread industrial action.

Speaking at the GMB union’s annual conference, Cable said that there is not currently a compelling case to change the laws around industrial action as strike levels remain low. However, he added that the Government could make changes to strike laws should widespread strikes threaten the UK’s “social and economic fabric”.

The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) is currently balloting more than 250,000 civil and public servants on whether or not to strike over cuts to pensions, jobs and pay, and national strike action could be on the horizon as a result.

Cable said: “Later this month, we may very well witness a day of industrial action across significant parts of the public sector. The usual suspects will call for general strikes and widespread disruption … and another group of usual suspects will exploit the situation to call for a tightening of strike law.

“We are undoubtedly entering a difficult period. Cool heads will be required all round. Despite occasional blips, I know that strike levels remain historically low, especially in the private sector.”

Cable explained that, until March of this year, the number of days lost through strikes were lower than at any time since 1931 and that, should this pattern continue, the case for changing strike laws would not be compelling.

However, he added: “Should the position change, and should strikes impose serious damage to our economic and social fabric, the pressure on us to act would ratchet up.”

Delegates at the GMB’s conference heckled the business secretary during his speech, resulting in GMB president Mary Turner intervening to quiet the crowd. She said: “You may not like what you are hearing any more than I do but please listen.”

TUC head of equalities and employment rights Sarah Veale commented that the UK already has some of the toughest strike legislation in the developed world.

“Restricting the right to withhold labour would also be completely at odds with the coalition’s commitment to civil liberties,” she argued.

“Disputes are always better settled through negotiation with unions, rather than veiled threats to rig the law in the employers’ favour.”

Dr Adam Marshall, director of policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, supported Cable’s comments. He argued: “Vince Cable is right to warn unions against mass strikes in the months ahead. In the current climate, large-scale industrial action would have a significant impact on business confidence and inward investment, which are both critical to the UK’s economic recovery.”

In an exploration of the likelihood of new legislation to combat industrial action, Personnel Today found that new strike laws and widespread industrial action could be risky approaches for unions and the Government and are considered by both to be “last resort” options.

Information on handling industrial disputes can be found on XpertHR.

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