Consultation on the Trades Union Reform Bill opened this week, giving the government time to calculate where public opinion lies and whether it really does have the support to push ahead
It’s worth remembering that this is not the launch of the actual bill, it’s simply the opening of a consultation (which ends on September 9), and the devil will be in the details. There are many stages, and undoubtedly changes, to go before any of it becomes statute – and some of it may never do so..
The changes will make it more difficult for unions to hold strike action
What are the key changes?
– 50 per cent turnout – all strike ballots will need a minimum turnout of 50 per cent
– 40 per cent support in key sectors – health/education/fire/transport/border security and nuclear decommissioning sectors will require support from at least 40 per cent of members
– Four-month time limit – ballots will only be valid for four months, unions taking action after that time limit will require another ballot
– Facilities time – greater scrutiny over full-time representatives
– Political fund reform – opt-in rather than opt-out
– Strike day reforms – safeguards for non-striking employees
– Notice to employers – notice of a strike increased from seven to 14 days
– Repeal of ban on using agency workers – legislation on using agency or supply staff to cover striking staff will be repealed, and the notice time increased from 7 to 14 days
Why is this happening?
Many will see this as heavy-handed. Many MPs wouldn’t have been elected on a 40 per cent threshold. However, the government believes public sympathy for frequent and disruptive industrial action is waning. Trade union membership has declined for a variety of reasons, and arguably many unions have suffered from activist polarisation.
As a result the government wants to ensure union industrial action has tighter regulation, greater legitimacy when it happens and causes less disruption.
What does this mean for unions and teachers?
Ultimately, without other arguably sensible changes such as electronic balloting, it will make it more difficult for unions to hold strike action. If the proposed changes were already in force, last week’s tube strikes (ballot) would have gone ahead but the last round of national teacher strikes would not have.
The last NUT ballot in 2012 resulted in a 27 per cent turnout with 84 per cent voting in favour of action. That’s 17 per cent short of the proposed threshold of 40 per cent. It was this same ballot, two years on, that mandated the national strike last July. The government wants to put limitations on this.
It’s certainly not impossible for unions to meet the required ballot limit (the recent tube strike is an example), but the union campaign will be costly, especially to repeat at four-monthly intervals. It will, however, give any mandated action significant legitimacy.
It’s also unlikely that we’ll see long drawn-out periods of one-day action. Unions will instead be forced to hold strikes over a shorter, more sustained, period. Such legitimacy and impact may well get the public behind any action and force the government to listen.
In a climate where teachers’ primary reason for joining a trade union is for legal support, unions would be wise to look at exactly what their membership wants and react accordingly. The reasons teachers give when they move to Edapt are the removal of politics and the lower cost.
It would make sense for the teaching unions to take heed of this. Being forced to have an opt-in on their political funds would be an immediate way for them to show the profession it’s not just about politics, and allow them to cut the cost of ever-increasing union subscriptions.
With the political parties at loggerheads and both major parties claiming the public opinion is on their side, remember this is only a consultation. This time will be there for the government to calculate where the public opinion lies and whether it really does have the general support to push ahead.