Martin Williams: Conservative plans would render strike action ineffective

Earlier this year, former Transport Secretary Grant Shapps expressed shock at how workers were treated by P and O Ferries, when the firm sacked hundreds of staff members without notice. The government had promised to introduce an employment bill to protect workers. Change was needed to prevent other mass sackings, but no change came.

We have already had new legislation which allows employers to replace striking workers with agency staff. The problem is, those with the relevant skills to undertake work are signed up to striking unions, not agencies. Nevertheless, the measure will be used in areas where skills are less rare. Some workers may have no choice but to take short-term positions through agencies.

Former Transport Secretary Grant Shapps outlined ways of limiting strikes this summer. His proposal was not to ban strikes, but to make them ineffective. The idea is to prevent different unions from striking in the same place within a set period, to limit pickets and outlaw intimidatory language. There is a call for more precise language on the reason for the strike, for each piece of action to have its own ballot and for cooling-off periods of up to 60 days after each strike.

The hope is to tackle the spate of one or two-day strikes extending over months. If an employer makes an offer, a union could be obliged to go back to its membership for another ballot, and Shapps demanded a 50% minimum of those participating to vote in favour of the offer.

The notice for strike action would increase from two to four weeks, and minimum service levels would have to be observed in infrastructure-critical industries such as the railways. So, strikes would not be banned, but the ability to down tools would be so heavily regulated that employers would be able to take action to make a strike call ineffective.

A strike would be called, notice given, and a new offer presented so another ballot is required. Even if this circle is broken, the remaining measures would help water down the impact of the union action.

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The government has the majority to make it happen. Does it have the time and inclination before another election for change as major as this? It’s worth pointing out we did not get the promised employment bill or legislation to prevent a repeat of the P and O Ferries farce.

Martin Williams is head of employment at Mayo Wynne Baxter