July 10, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith
As public sector workers stage a mass walkout on a scale rarely seen since the 1926 general strike, there are can’t arguments going back and forth about the legitimacy of their action. I am a supporter of the need for unions and recognise the legitimacy of their grievances (pay has been basically frozen since the coalition came in, massive adverse changes in pension etc). But there are some genuine questions to be asked about legitimacy of the democratic process that led to the strike being legal.
The vote that provides legal backing for today’s strike was taken in 2012 and involved a turnout of 27% overall. It was legal because it was made clear that it was about rolling industrial action until the disputes were over and there is no turnout threshold required. David Cameron has vowed in the next Conservative manifesto to change aspects of the legislation that has allowed such disruption to be caused by what seems such a weak mandate, such as a time limit in how far after a ballot one can strike and to say there needs to be at least a 50% turnout or, even to demand that the yes vote to strike is actually made by 50% of union members (e.g. a 66% yes vote on a 75% turnout) and has been thus called a ‘bully’ by the unions. But in truth it is over this issue that the unions and many on the left in general are standing on particularly weak ground.
The main argument used to justify the ability to close schools today is that there is no difference between a 27% turnout for a strike ballot and the 38% turnout by which Boris Johnson was elected as Mayor, the few MPs who are in Parliament having received 50% of the vote in their constituency (David Cameron got 43%), and the election of Police Commissioners, which in some places had a turnout of around 15%. But this is a disingenuous comparison at the very least.
Everybody had a chance to vote in the elections above. The result of those elections decides how they are governed and if they don’t vote that is their problem. The example I often use in class is of Ken Livingstone’ election as mayor in 2000, in which there was a turnout of 34% and he got less than 60% of the vote. This meant that Livingstone’s signature policy, the congestion charge, could be brought in by someone who had only been voted for by 20% of Londoners. There was uproar at the time, even legal challenges, yet since it had been in his manifesto, Livingstone had a democratic mandate to introduce the congestion charge. Everyone in London had had a chance to vote for or against it and him, and if they hadn’t bothered that is their problem.
But all the parents whose kids are at home this morning. All the parents who have had to take a day off work, all the parents having to pay for childcare today, they DIDN’T vote to strike. Instead, a small proportion of a profession voted to disrupt their lives. This is very different as those affected by this strike didn’t have a chance to vote on it. If you take a survey of the general public, a high proportion support the rationale for the strike. But if you tell them the proportion of workers who had actually voted to strike, I imagine their answer would be different.
Their is a case for looking at the legislation that allows this much disruption to be caused on such a weak mandate. Unions must have the chance to strike, and we need to look at changing the rules on how ballots are held too. At the moment you get your ballot paper in the post and have to fill it in and send it back. Workers should have a chance to fill in ballot papers in the workplace, with certain protections for the democratic legitimacy of that process as we don’t want to go back to the days of public shows of hands.
I certainly don’t think the unions can justify the current situation, in fact I would argue it hurts their case. The weakness of their main arguments in support of that process (plus the tiresome invocation of Cameron’s background in defence of the status quo by Len McCluskey the Unite leader) shows they are having trouble justifying it.