Later today in the United Kingdom, some 2m people are expected to take part in a nationwide public sector strike. This includes teachers, firefighters and civil servants – all protesting against a wide range of work disputes, including pay, pensions, jobs and spending cuts.
Civil service pay has been frozen in 2010 due to austerity, a pay cap of 1% in 2012 still remains in place.
The Conservative Party isn’t pleased. David Cameron pointed out unfair tactics and referred to the National Union of Teachers (NUT) as an example.
Before a union goes on strike, they have to cast a vote. The NUT’s vote to strike was cast in 2012, based on a 27% turnout.
“How can it possibly be right for our children’s education to be disrupted by trade unions acting in that way?” said Cameron.
General Secretary of the Trade Union Congress (their equivalent of our NTUC) Frances O’Grady (their version of our Lim Swee Say) said: “The number of working days lost to industrial action is low.”
She rebuked the Prime Minister, asking him to come up with ways to ensure that Britain’s hard-pressed public sector workers begin to share in the economic recover. Rather than creating unnecessary changes to law.
And changing rules to strike is on the Prime Minister’s plate – he’ll be suggesting a variety of proposals including strike bans for essential services and time limit on validity of strike ballots.
The Conservative Party have had a rough history with the trade unions. They believe it is unfair for trade unions to hold too much power and have sought to limit their power, though sometimes unsuccessfully.
During the 1979 election, Thatcher’s Conservative Party said one of the first tasks was restoring “a fair balance between the rights and duties of the trade union movement.”
It was Thatcher’s view that British labor laws were in need of reform because “militant” pro-union legislation enacted by the Labour Party had allowed unions to bargain for wages and working conditions that made British firms uncompetitive in an increasingly global economy.
Mrs. Thatcher also believed that labor laws encouraged unions to use strikes and work stoppages “as a weapon of first rather than last resort” and led to “increasingly bitter and calamitous industrial disputes.”
But is it legal?
One of the items that the Conservatives will be pursuing, is a limitation on the right for essential services to strike.
In a ruling from Wilson and Palmer v United Kingdom, the European Court of Human Rights pointed out the concerns of discrimination by employers against workers who join and take action through trade unions. In this case, the Government may not be allowed to enact laws that prevent employees from participating in industrial action.
The ruling held that there was a contravene to Section 11 of the Human Rights Act:
“It is of the essence of the right to join a trade union for the protection of their interests that employees should be free to instruct or permit the union to make representations to their employer or to take action in support of their interests on their behalf. If workers are prevented from doing so, their freedom to belong to a trade union, for the protection of their interests, becomes illusory. IT is the role of the State to ensure that trade union members are not prevented or restrained from using their union to represent them in attempts to regulate their relations with their employers”
But Section 11 has limitations. It depends on what the Conservatives want to construe as “essential services”. Transport and energy may not constitute the definition of essential services, if one was to use Section 11 as a guide, since they are not matters of national security, public safety, health or crime.
Meanwhile, the clock ticks…
We shall see if this really is the UK’s biggest strike, or if it is mere puffery by the TUC.
Said Frances O’Grady, “The economy may be picking up, but having paid the price in pay freezes and below-inflation pay increases for several years, there is to be no financial let up for town-hall employees and other public sector workers. For them there are no shares to be had in the UK’s economic recovery. Instead, several more years of penny-pinching and frugal living lie ahead.”
The tussle between unions and government have been going on since they were conceived and it makes one wonder if it is ever possible that both these parties just get along.
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