The Conservatives have announced plans to place restrictions on industrial action in health, education, transport and fire services. These services now require 40 percent of people to turn out to vote in order to instigate a strike. This has received immediate backlash from the labour community, who point out that Conservatives formed a government after winning less than 40 per cent of votes last election. Unions will also have to utilise a result in favour of striking within three months; a measure implemented in response to the National Union of Teachers who used a ballot in 2012 to plan strike action in 2014. Additional reforms include restrictions on picketing making illegal picketing a criminal offence; which Conservatives claim will prevent intimidation and protect employees who still wish to work.
However, unions believe that striking is being made impossible for these essential services. The reforms have been strongly opposed by Frances O’Grady, the General Secretary of the Trade Unions Congress (TUC). She claims the balance of power has shifted “in favour of the employer”, BBC news reported. She also states that equal negotiations between employers and unions will be made impossible if unions hold no power. The TUC declared that Britain’s strike laws are the most severe of any democratic country, and questions the need to strengthen laws already erected by Margaret Thatcher who was “not exactly a friend of the unions”.
This debate raises the question of whether the right to strike is universal. Should essential services be treated the same as any other? The debate is controversial as upholding individual worker’s rights offers potential harm to members of the public if they cannot gain access to ambulances or fire services. In response to this concern, the Conservatives have insisted that a minimum number of employees will be required to work in order to keep services running. These measures make it more difficult to commit to legal strikes, which unions argue is simply a way of removing obstacles to planned future pay cuts and the elimination of many public sector jobs. The debate centres on the principle which allows the Conservatives to run a government without even a majority, whilst unions must provide not only a majority but also a 40 per cent turn-out at elections, something which didn’t happen for either the Police Commissioner Elections of 2012, or the European Parliament Elections of 2014.
It is clear that the UK parliament has decided that the functioning of key services is more important than the universal right to strike, a concept which questions the democratic principles supposedly at the heart of British politics. If the Conservatives administer these reforms, the services will remain efficient during industrial action, which renders the question of whether it is worth striking at all. If not, then Britain seems to have distanced itself from its democratic roots and rendered the TUC effectively powerless.