On Democracy and Strike Ballots

May 22, 2014 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

On the 9 th May David Cameron succumbed to the calls on London Mayor Boris Johnson and, speaking on the Andrew Marr show, committed that ‘on day one’ of a Conservative led government in May 2015 his party would introduce legislation to require that in regards to ‘essential’ public services a trade union may only call strike action if a minimum of 50% of members had voted in the ballot . That is a requirement which very few ballots would meet under current trade union legislation.

Given the bloody nose the London Mayor received from the well supported action of RMT members in their dispute over the closure of ticket offices, it is not surprising that Boris Johnson should be lobbying Cameron to neutralise the RMT union’s opposition by introducing new anti-trade union legislation. And for Cameron, a failure to heed the lobbying of his potential leadership rival is itself politically risky.

As many a commentator has already pointed out, there is a strong undercurrent of hypocrisy in these legislative proposals. Already, following changes introduced by the previous Conservative government, the UK’s laws on industrial action ballots are much more restrictive than those that apply to other elections and are among the harshest in Europe. And yet, even with these more restrictive hurdles the recent RMT ballot, in which 77% voted in favour of strike action, had a turnout of 40%.

Compare that with Boris Johnson’s own election as London Mayor on a turnout of ‘ 38%

Yes that’s right, the Tory politician opining on ‘undemocratic’ RMT ballots was elected on a lower turnout on more preferential voting terms. More recent votes, such as those for the Police and Crime Commissioners, place the hypocritical nature of Tory claims of trade unions holding members of the public to ransom in even sharper relief. Did the Labour Party’s Jane Kennedy hold the people of Merseyside to ransom when the turnout in the Merseyside PCC elections was a mere 12.4%; and what of Conservative Party’s Angus McPherson in Wiltshire where only 15.8% of the electorate turned out to vote? Needless to say, there has been no clamour from Tory politicians that all these elections be rendered invalid unless a minimum of 50% of the electorate bother to vote. Until they do, their pledges should rightly be seen as a flagrant attack on ordinary ‘hard-working’ people rather than having the aim of increasing democratic legitimacy in UK elections.

It is questionable whether such a move would even be legal. In recent weeks, the European Court of Human Rights in The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers v. The United Kingdom has ruled in favour of the UK government in a challenge by the RMT that the UK was in breach of Article 11 of the ECHR in its prohibition of secondary action. Although favouring the UK government, the judgement did find that the UK statute was at the very limits of the margin of appreciation European law allows member states. It is questionable whether the above mentioned move, if enacted, would pass ECHR judicial scrutiny.

The West Croydon branch has sought to submit an emergency motion for debate at next week’s PCS Union conference. This motion calls on the union to challenge such moves with all means at its disposal, including seeking to engage support from across the labour movement and legally challenge any attempt should a future government of whatever political persuasion attempt to implement such policy.

Whilst Tory posturing should be seen primarily as an attempt to boost its poll ratings in the midst of public inconvenience from the industrial action of the RMT, the public interest reasons for the strike are strangely not being reported by the mainstream media. Within PCS, the National Executive Committee elections have just taken place and the results announced . A look at the turnout shows that it was a woeful 8%; in other words, 92% of my union’s members declined to exercise their vote. Within the Home Office group of PCS members, the position is hardly better: in elections for the Group Executive Committee, announced on Thursday, the turnout was only a marginally better 11.8%.

A vibrant trade union movement depends on member engagement in all union activities; after all, a trade union properly understood – despite what Unison TV adverts would have you believe – is not a type of insurance company or personal injury solicitor – it is the workers’ collective voice in the workplace. To do so depends on workers who are interested in what their union rep is doing and who hold them to account when they fail to do so. It is for this reason that my branch’s motion submitted to the union’s conference next week also calls for more work on improving member engagement in union democracy.

As Boris Johnson knows only too well, when it comes to unions taking part in strike action their members really are engaged in the process. Far more than the 40% who voted in the RMT ballot voted with their feet when industrial action was called, putting to bed the myth that the action was dictated by a cabal of union ‘barons’. As subsequent Tory moves have shown, this is no longer just a issue for the RMT but a challenge for the whole British labour movement. A united stance is crucial to our victory.


Richard Gillingham is the Secretary of the West Croydon branch of the Public and Commercial Services Union. The branch can be found on twitter at @PCSWestCroydon and the website is at www.pcscroydon.org.uk


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