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Labour's law puts dampener on strike

Union claims new legislation impedes workers' rights. Steve Hook reports.

THOUSANDS of lecturers will be prevented from striking for better pay this month because of the "impossible obstacle course" of Labour employment legislation, say unions.

Lecturers in around 40 colleges will work as usual because, according to their union, branches were unable to collate information required under the Employment Relations Act 1999, which is designed to help employers plan for the impact of strikes.

As a result of this hurdle ballots were held in just 282 colleges.

"For many colleges, the legislation creates an impossible obstacle course," said Paul Mackney, general secretary of the lecturers' union NATFHE.

"I was taught at school that people won the right to withdraw their labour. This legislation takes that right away. It needs to be repealed. It is actually an incredible achievement that we have managed to ballot as many colleges as we did."

The Trades Union Congress is campaigning for the Act to be amended. "The TUC is very much opposed to this rule," said a spokesman. "It is part of the Act that you have to name where people work. The Government will be having a review of the legislation later this year and one thing that the TUC will be pushing for is a change to this rule."

The TUC also fears this requirement makes it easier for colleges to identify who is on strike, even though unions are no longer required to provide a list of names of those taking part in action.

NATFHE's problems are seen by some as further evidence of Labour adding to constraints already imposed by previous Conservative governments.

The offending section of the Act says unions must provide a statement "containing such information in the union's possession as would help the employer to make plans".

John Hendy QC, a prominent employment specialist, said the offending part of the Act is in breach of two key international agreements on the right to strike. These are contained in the International Labour Organisation convention number 87 and the European Social Chapter.

The UK signed up to both these agreements voluntarily but, because they have not been turned into statute, they can be ignored by Government without any right of legal challenge by British citizens.

Mr Hendy said: "They have introduced some measures which are helpful to the unions but they haven't done much to dismantle the former Conservative legislation against trades unions. They have added to it."

The Department for Education and Skills would not be drawn on the Government's employment legislation but predicted the majority of NATFHE members will not strike. "Who NATFHE ballots is entirely a matter for them," said a spokeswoman for the department. "The fact is, only one in three members has voted to take strike action. Overall, fewer than 10,000 of the country's 135,000 college lecturers will strike, clearly a small minority."

NATFHE maintains most of the 30,000 members who received ballot papers will observe the strike. There were 9,462 yes-votes, 4,986 no-votes and 154 spoilt papers.

There was a 44 per cent turnout but all those who were balloted are entitled to strike, regardless of whether they voted.

FE news, 38

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