Tories vow to toughen strike laws
Conservatives will legislate to make it more difficult for unions to call strikes in key public services if they win this year's election.
Industrial action in the health, education, transport and fire services would require the support of at least 40% of all those entitled to take part in strike ballots - as well as a majority of those who actually turn out to vote. A Conservative source said this would prevent strikes going ahead on the basis of majorities in ballots in which only a small proportion of the unionised workforce has participated.
The move was denounced as a "democratic outrage" by the TUC, who said it would effectively end the right to strike in the public sector at a time when Conservatives are planning pay restraint and large-scale job cuts.
GMB general secretary Paul Kenny pointed out that Conservatives failed to secure 40% support of those who voted in the 2010 general election, while only 15 Tory MPs had the backing of 40% of those entitled to vote in their constituencies.
Under proposals to be included in the Conservative manifesto for the May 6 election, Tories also pledged to end the ban on the use of agency staff to cover for striking workers, and promised a review on the possible introduction of minimum service levels to ensure that core services remain available during strikes.
Unveiling the plans, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said legislation would be passed in the first year of the next Parliament if Conservatives secure a majority and would stop "politicised union leaders" from "holding the country to ransom" with the backing of only a small proportion of their members.
Measures previously announced by Conservatives would impose a 50% minimum turnout threshold for all strike ballots, end "rolling mandates" so that strikes cannot be called on the basis of ballots conducted years before, and reform picketing rules to protect staff who want to go in to work.
Nearly three-quarters (86) of 119 significant ballots for industrial action conducted between August 2010 and December 2014 would have been invalid under the proposed thresholds, including last year's London Underground strike, which fewer than one third of eligible RMT members voted for, said Conservatives.
And next week's planned bus strikes in London would be banned, as only 16% of those entitled to vote backed the January 13 action in a ballot which attracted a turnout of just 19%, a party source said.
Mr McLoughlin said: "I t is only fair that the rights of unions are balanced with the rights of hard-working taxpayers who rely on key public services.
"It is wrong that politicised union leaders can hold the country to ransom with demands that only a small percentage of their members voted for. That causes misery to millions of people; and it costs our economy too. As part of our long-term economic plan for our country, we want commuters, parents and families to be able to get on with their day with as minimal disruption as possible.
"These serious reforms will help increase the legitimacy of any strikes unions do hold. And they will put our labour laws back where they should be - on the side of hard-working people going about their daily lives."
But TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said: "The Conservatives know that this threshold will effectively end the right to strike in the public sector. No democracy elsewhere in the world has this kind of restriction on industrial action. It is a democratic outrage, especially as the Conservatives have opposed allowing secure and secret online balloting - the one measure guaranteed to increase turnouts.
"We know they plan to get rid of a million public sector jobs and cut the value of public sector pay every year in the next Parliament if they win the election. Now they are also going to make it impossible for public sector workers to resist."
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said: "These measures would make it virtually impossible for anyone in the public sector to go on strike - shifting the balance completely in favour of the Government and employers, and away from dedicated public servants.
"The UK already has tough laws on strikes - there is no need to make them stricter still. Democracy won't be enhanced by raising thresholds but by bringing balloting into the 21st century and allowing union members to vote from their phones, tablets and laptops."
Mr Kenny said: "Only 16 out of 650 elected Members of Parliament secured the support of 40% of those entitled to vote in their parliamentary constituency area election in 2010. Only 15 Tory MPs out of 303 secured that level of support. They had no hesitation in forming a Government in 2010 without securing 40% support from the electorate."
CBI deputy director general Katja Hall welcomed the proposals: " Strikes should always be the result of a clear, positive decision by those balloted. The introduction of a threshold is an important - but fair - step to rebalance the interests of employers, employees, the public and the rights of trade unions.
"For nearly five years the CBI has been saying that recruiting agency workers to plug gaps during a strike is not about threatening strikers' jobs, but providing essential cover during periods of action so businesses can continue to serve their customers. The abolition of this nonsensical restriction is long overdue."
John Longworth, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: " In the eyes of businesses large and small, these proposals have merit, as they would help ensure essential services and the freedom to work in the event of strike action."
Jonathan Isaby, chief executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance pressure group, said: " Introducing this kind of threshold to make a strike legitimate would be a simple yet reasonable step to ensure that a minority of militant union activists cannot cause misery for millions."