Business leaders eager to drown out voices of workers?

13 June 2013 By Sarah Glenister, IER staff The Institute of Directors, which one cannot fail to notice has the ear of the Department of Business, has released statistics showing the majority of its members wish for strike action to be banned in a wide range of industries.

Commentary icon13 Jun 2013|Comment

Sarah Glenister

National Development Officer, Institute of Employment Rights

13 June 2013

By Sarah Glenister, IER staff

The Institute of Directors, which one cannot fail to notice has the ear of the Department of Business, has released statistics showing the majority of its members wish for strike action to be banned in a wide range of industries.

In a report entitled Industrial Inaction: controlling the super-unions, the organisation published the results of a 2010 poll of its members, showing 51% believe industrial action should be outlawed in the public sector and 26% think it should be banned in the private sector. Drill down further, and it is revealed a massive 73% of business leaders feel employees of the fire brigade should be prohibited from striking, while 67% and 60% believe doctors and nurses, respectively, should also have this right removed from them. Only 21% of those asked felt that industrial action should not be outlawed among a list of 13 sectors, including teaching.

The IoD recommended that strike ballots should only be deemed valid if the majority of union members at the workplace in question turned out to vote, although it admitted that the postal voting system the unions are currently restricted to should be updated to include electronic balloting. While digital systems may have some impact on improving turnout at ballots and union members in smaller workplaces are more likely to turn out to vote anyway, this poses a problem for strike ballots among employees such as teachers and NHS staff, of which there are hundreds of thousands. The requirement that the majority of affected people turn out to vote in order for the ballot to be valid is not made for any other kind of election – not for MPs, and certainly not for police commissioners!

It was claimed by the IoD that the current situation allows trade union leaders to take industrial action condoned by only a minority of members (but a majority of voters). While technically accurate, this does not suggest, as the IoD wishes its readers to believe, that a hardcore group of ‘the union-elite’ are bringing about unpopular industrial action. Indeed, the body appears eager to ignore the fact that trade union leaders are hardly militant dictators, but are democratically voted into their position by members.

So when the business leaders, who make up the membership of the IoD, wish to quieten the so-called ‘super unions’ and strip them of what little power they have, they really wish to silence the workers, whose needs are inconvenient to them.

Indeed, the document noted that strike action has increased significantly since the Coalition was formed, and described the rate of successful ballots as being “conspicuously high”, with only 5% of strike ballots resulting in a vote against industrial action in 2011. Rather than concluding that the harsh austerity programme implemented by the Coalition government has left workers in a more vulnerable position and thus with more to strike about, the IoD announced that the figures were “strongly suggestive of a lack of an effective counterweight to the desire of union leaderships to pursue industrial action”. To highlight, once again: The leadership is democratically elected by the membership, and it is the members – that is, the nation’s workers – who are balloted. Does the IoD wish for an “effective counterweight” to the voice of the British people? It is clear that the aim of the IoD is not to provide for democracy – for the workers’ voices to be heard – but to reduce the number of successful strike ballots there are substantially, regardless of what those voices are saying.

The IoD’s recommendations seek to put a strangehold on UK workers by making it even more difficult to take industrial action – an approach which is already pursued by unions as a last resort, due to the number of obstacles already placed in their way before they can legally call a strike. Even then, if any potential problem is spotted in the process the union took to call a strike, they could be taken to court – and judges are known for deciding in favour of injunctions so absurd it seems the unions cannot win.

The table below shows how the restriction of trade union rights has grown tighter since the 1980s, and how the IoD plans to cripple the unions altogether, with recommendations, including allowing employers to hire temporary workers to replace striking staff; make unions negotiate with large services in a fragmented way (by individual school or hospital, instead of with the Department of Education or NHS, for instance); banning strikes altogether for some workers; and of course making it as difficult as possible for strike ballots to be successful.

Recent Injunctions

  • First London Buses: UNITE balloted its members at First London Buses for strike action and action short of a strike. They won a majority for both. Action short of a strike took place but the employer didn’t budge so strike action was planned of 6th January. The Court stopped the strike claiming the strike mandate was out of date because the action didn’t start within the 28 days of the original ballot. Unite and other unions dispute that by asking two questions this represents two separate ballots – they see it as one ballot allowing flexibility in the type of action taken.

  • EDF Energy Power: In December 2009, the High Court rules that an RMT formal strike notice to EDF Energy did not meet strict balloting requirements. RMT had identified 65 members working in three workplaces but bosses complained they did not have enough information about the categories of workers “to make suitable contingency plans” (i.e. to break the strike!).

  • BA Cabin Crew: In December 2009, BA cabin crew represented by UNITE voted by a margin of 92.5% on a ballot turnout of 80% to strike against imposed extending working hours and reduced wages for new employees. The Court granted BA an injunction preventing the strike on the basis that the ballot included 811 crew who had since taken voluntary redundancy – despite the fact that had the 811 been excluded, the vote would still have resulted in an 8 to 1 vote in favour of action.

  • Metrobus Workers: In August 2009, the Court of Appeal overturned a 90% UNITE ballot vote in favour of strike action aimed at standardising pay and conditions of bus drivers. Why? The Court claimed UNITE “had not acted as soon as reasonably practicable” in giving bosses the ballot result even though UNITE received the ballot result on the 2nd August and informed Metrobus on 3rd. Second, on the pre-ballot noticed, UNITE had stated the employer had 766 on check off when in effect they had 776. Two highly technical and outrageously dubisou excuses for denying democratic wishes of workers.

Chronology of Ballots

1980 Employment Act:

  • Tories provided money to run ballots (carrot before the stick!)

1982 Employment Act:

  • Unions made liable (up to £250,000) if an officer endorsed a strike without ballot

1984 Trade Union Act:

  • All ballots had to be in “secret” (though not yet by post!)
  • Union now liable for ANY “act done without the support of a ballot”
  • Act specified required wording on ballot paper

1988 Employment Act:

  • Strike ballots to be done at each separate workplace (isolate weak spots)
  • New Code of Practice on ballots allowed for further state control
  • Members (not just employers and customers) could take injunction against un-balloted action
  • Introduced new state official (CROTUM) to support and pay for member complaints against union
  • Removed union’s right to discipline strike breakers and introduced substantial financial compensation for those disciplined by union.

1990 Employment Act:

  • All secondary action –with or without ballot – now unlawful
  • Unions liable for all un-balloted action unless written repudiation sent to all members
  • Dismissal of strikers taking unofficial (ie repudiated) action now allowed
  • Any member of union could sue union for un-balloted action with support of CROTUM – even if member not involved in the strike.

1993 Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act:

  • Creation of Commissioner for Protection Against Unlawful Industrial Action
  • 7 days notice of ballots and of industrial action specified
  • Union to identify those members balloted to boss
  • Independent scrutiny of strike ballots demanded
  • All industrial action ballots to be postal.

IoD recommendations

  1. A double lock-in vote Introduce the requirement that 50% of union members balloted must support strike action as well as a majority of those voting.

  3. The introduction of electronic voting

  5. Abolishing the requirement for industrial action to begin within 28 days of the ballot


  6. Increasing ballot paper information Require all ballot papers to detail the precise number of days of industrial action. Strike action could not exceed these days without a re-ballot of members.

  8. A six-month ‘longstop’ date on ballots Introduce a period of six months from a successful ballot in which strike action can be taken. Beyond this date, further action beyond the initial six months would require a successful
    subsequent ballot of union members.

  10. A quasi ‘Competition Commission for unions’ The Certification Officer or an alternative body should be given new powers to conduct a market review into the present impact of the consolidation of unions, and to introduce new criteria for the permitted amalgamation of unions in the future.

  12. Localised employer ballots/pay bargaining Require that unions ballot/negotiate pay at the lowest possible level of employer. If a dispute is school/local authority/hospital-specific, the ballot and strike action should be confined to the appropriate unit.

  14. A key service strike ban Prohibit industrial action in essential services. These would include the fire service, doctors, nurses and key utility providers.

  16. Remove the prohibition on Agency Workers Ensure that organisations that are subject to strike action have the option of maintaining their service levels with the temporary replacement of staff with Agency Workers.

  18. Increase the strike notice period Increase the length of time employers are given as notice of impending strike action. The present one-week notice period should be raised to two weeks to allow for negotiation and any transitional planning.

Sarah Glenister

Sarah Glenister Sarah Glenister Sarah Glenister is the Institute of Employment Rights' IT Development and Communications Assistant.