Government proposals to tighten rules on strike ballots could have the opposite effect and inspire a flurry of local industrial action in schools, education unions have claimed.
Teachers were among the tens of thousands of people demonstrating against the controversial Trade Union Bill outside the Conservative Party conference in Manchester on Sunday.
But plans to limit strikes and other industrial action, by imposing higher voting thresholds for ballots, could backfire on the government, according to teachers’ leaders. Peter Pendle, deputy general secretary of the ATL union, told TES that changes to rules on ballot turnouts could lead to a spike in localised action at schools and colleges.
Currently, industrial action can take place as long as the majority of those taking part in a ballot vote in favour. But if the proposals go through, at least 50 per cent of the members will need to turn out in a ballot and 40 per cent will need to say yes.
“The Trade Union Bill is likely to result in industrial action moving from national to local action because it will become harder to reach the threshold in national ballots, without the government agreeing to bring voting into the 21st century and allowing a change in voting methods, which it appears reluctant to do,” Mr Pendle told TES. “This is likely to lead to an increase in local action, where it remains easier to reach the threshold.”
In June 2011, the ATL and the NUT took part in a national strike over changes to pensions. In the NUT ballot, 92 per cent voted in favour of strike action, with a turnout of 40 per cent. The ATL result was 83 per cent in favour of a strike on a 35 per cent turnout. Neither union would have been able to strike had the bill been in place.
‘Shooting themselves in the foot’
The general secretary of Voice, the no-strike alternative to the main classroom unions, also predicts a rise in localised action in response to the government’s crackdown on trade unions.
“Workers will still take industrial action but it’s going to be more localised. It wouldn’t take too much organisation to get a few schools in the same area, who share the same national concerns, to take action on the same day,” Voice general secretary Deborah Lawson told TES.
She warned that the bill – which includes allowing employers to use agency workers to replace striking staff and doubling the amount of notice unions have to give for a strike to 14 days – was likely to fuel a more hostile and aggressive response from union members. The government had the potential of “shooting themselves in the foot” if they passed the strongly opposed bill, Ms Lawson said. “There will be more opportunities to take a militant road,” she added.
Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the NUT, told TES: “Local action is more likely to increase as a result of the fragmentation of the education system and as government attacks on terms and conditions continue.”
On Sunday it emerged that Len McCluskey, the head of Britain’s biggest union, Unite, had written to prime minister David Cameron to say that he is willing to accept the minimum 50 per cent threshold for industrial action ballots in return for online voting. Mr Courtney is also pushing for reform of the voting system to encourage higher turnouts. He said he would be “confident” of securing 50 per cent turnout at national ballots if electronic voting was in place rather than the postal vote.
“It is not the modern way of doing things,” he said. “We want members to be able to vote via their smartphones so they can vote anywhere. But the government won’t give us this. Their aim is to stop strike action.”
Mr Cameron has signalled that he is unwilling to offer electronic voting, owing to concerns that it would be vulnerable to fraud. “I think there are problems with that approach,” Mr Cameron said this week.
“Is it really too much to ask someone who is going to go on strike, who is going to disrupt people’s children’s school, to fill in a ballot paper to do that?”
How union members will be affected
The Trade Union Bill is currently going through Parliament. If passed it will:
Make industrial action unlawful unless 50 per cent of those being asked to take action vote in the ballot.
In most public services, including education, it will also require at least 40 per cent of those who do vote to support the action.
Compel unions to renew any mandate for action with a fresh ballot within four months of the first ballot.
Remove the current ban on employers hiring agency staff to cover the work of striking employees.
Empower the government to set a limit on the proportion of working time any public sector worker can spend on trade union duties.
Make unlawful picketing a criminal rather than civil offence.