Strikes cannot be allowed to go on like this

The UK has a history of striking unions, creating havoc across the nation, but the government’s deficit reduction plan has seen them intensify over the past year. In June of this year we had doctors striking over pension reforms; Border staff walking out in May, as well co-ordinated striking action by a series of public sector unions in November 2011, which saw over two million workers avoiding their jobs. Now, on the eve of the biggest event to ever be held in the country, the thousands of Home Office staff, including crucial Border Security staff, are striking yet again.  Even if you disregard the importance of the date, when it’s a matter of national importance for the staff to be at work, the recent strikes have revealed some rather intriguing statistics, which show that reform is drastically needed.

In November 2011, a total of 29 unions secured the necessary votes needed to strike against the government’s public sector, culminating in the biggest action since the winter of discontent in 1979. Amongst other things, this led to around 90% of schools either closed or disrupted in some way. You would have thought that for something that had such an impact, the unions must have had overwhelming support, including the 78% voting yes in Unison. Yet, if you look further, that wasn’t the case. Instead, we see a crazy set of results, of which only 22% actually voted yes, due to a catastrophically low turnout of 29%. This theme has been repeated in the ballot for the upcoming Home Office walk out, with 57% voting yes from a 20% turn out, meaning that the actual vote was a measly 11%. How can 11% be allowed to cause such havoc?

These results have proven that reform is needed in two areas; voting and the actual strike themselves.

In the first case, changes to voting can shake up the system so that we can truly go back to democratic roots, so that we can move back towards the majority. This means that we need to see the strike results only become legally pending if there is a turnout bigger than 50%. It is easy to sort out systems that will allow the unions to maximise turnout for a strike ballot; this isn’t a general election and doesn’t need security that goes with that. If this is put in place, we would finally see an end to the mind boggling results like those seen in the recent strikes, as no longer would 11% of members be allowed to cause such harm to the country. It wouldn’t be that bad if the turnout was around 80%, or even 49%, but 20% is truly amazing.

Next, we need to reform the laws that setup who exactly is allowed to strike. People claim that they strike in order to support their fellow workers, but that’s what unions are there for in the first place, so they can stand together. So, when they vote no, despite their colleagues fears, but then strike anyway, it’s a shambles. This means that the second piece of reform means that we need to change the rules as to who can strike. To make it fair, we would have to implement a scheme where only those who voted yes would be allowed to strike. People might say that this would make strikes ineffective, but it would still allow a sizeable chunk to strike, and thus have an impact. If people vote yes, they must feel they have big enough concerns to strike, but if they vote no, they’ve decided they don’t. This is not taking away people’s power, as all of the union members, 100% of them, can still go on strike, as long as they vote yes, but it would make it fair for the rest of us. The rest of us who are having to go through private sector cutbacks, and seeing living standards squeezed, and putting up with it because they are happy to just have a job.

Combined with the reform to the voting rules, this would go a long way to make the impact from strikes much fairer, so when, in the future, the strikes cause 90% of schools to be disrupted, there can at least be evidence to back up the argument.

This isn’t to mention the fact that the reasons for striking are crazy to begin with. The public sector wants to keep their prized pension schemes. However, they seem to be forgetting that we are currently running a massive deficit, and have to reduce it. We’ve also got over £1 trillion worth of debt, at which point it shows that we cannot afford such luxurious pensions.

Even considering this, we are forgetting that public sector pensions are already far better than the private sector. Many private sector schemes go bust, but there is much less risk with the government; so the public sector workers should pay a premium to have such a safe pension, not pay less. This is also ignoring the other benefits seen by the public sector, such as retiring very early in certain positions.

Overall, the recent strikes have shown that there are a lot of issues with the current laws regarding unions and striking. 11% of people voting for something to happen cannot be allowed to cause such a drastic impact in the future. Reforms to both voting and striking need to be implemented sooner. Striking is important, as in some cases it can be needed, such as when the fuel workers wanted to strike over health and safer, but in other cases, the impact created is far bigger than it should be. We need reform for the twenty-first century.