In recent weeks we’ve seen the Conservative party make a play to be the workers’ party. Their so-called “blue collar conservatism” has won some headlines – not least last week, when the chancellor added a welcome premium to the national minimum wage.
That makes it all the stranger that the government would decide now is the time to attack workers’ rights to organise together.
As the Times commentator Phillip Collins
said this morning,
Strike action, fox hunting, the BBC, Europe, migrant benefits. The Tory ability to identify things that are not problems, then attack them."
After all, the number of days lost to strike action now is on average less than a tenth of what it was during the 1980s. As Iain Dale said to one of my colleagues on LBC Drive a few days ago, it’s not like strikes are constant, or have an enormous impact on productivity nowadays. Of far greater impact is the UK’s under-investment in skills – something unions want to work with the government to fix.
The government’s proposals will upset the balance between employers and workers – tilting it too far in employers’ favour. Many of the proposals will make it far harder to resolve disputes fairly.
And whilst some people may be inconvenienced by strikes, that in itself should be a greater spur to employers not to let things escalate. Good employers know that the best way to resolve problems at work is to sit down with workers and talk it through, trying to find a compromise.
It's already hard to go on strike in the UK. The rules governing ballots are tough. And the number of disputes are low in historical terms - despite the significant public sector service, pay and job cuts of recent years.
But even when ballots meet the government’s new thresholds, employers will now be able to break strikes by bringing in agency workers. These workers may be inexperienced and not properly trained, but expected to cover important roles dealing with the public at little notice.
All of this means that employers will be able to ride roughshod over the concerns of their staff. After all, no-one takes the decision to go on strike lightly. It’s always a last resort when all else has failed. It’s how workers raise their concerns about job losses, safety problems and pay. And it’s a fundamental British liberty.
The government’s proposals may criminalise peaceful picketing – such as when a seventh person joins a picket line. Is this really how we want to use police time – arresting the seventh nurse on a picket line outside the hospital where they work?
If the government was really concerned about improving workplace democracy, they’d commit to online balloting – an easy and secure way of letting workers have their say. But instead we’re faced with these unnecessary and antagonistic proposals – exposing the sham of the Conservatives’ claims to be the party of working people.
Frances O’Grady, TUC General Secretary