UK Politics

Unite boss McCluskey warns over strike ballot changes

Len McCluskey Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr McCluskey said it was harder for unions to defend their rights while staying within the law

The head of the Unite union has said he will not "respect" any law passed by a future Conservative government tightening the rules on strike ballots.

David Cameron has said strikes should not be lawful unless a minimum number of union members vote in a ballot.

Plans for a "turnout threshold" will be in the party's election manifesto.

But Unite boss Len McCluskey said this would "oppress the people and remove their freedoms". He added: "Can we respect it? It ain't going to happen."

Under current law, a strike can take place if it is backed by a simple majority of those balloted.

But Conservative MPs have questioned the legitimacy of industrial action where fewer than half of total eligible members support it in a vote.

London Mayor Boris Johnson has called for strikes to be banned unless 50% of staff in a workplace take part in a ballot.

'Time to legislate'

Although Mr Cameron has not specified a figure, he has said it is "time to legislate" to stop "damaging" strikes in "core" public services affecting health, transport, fire services or schools and the manifesto is expected to include proposals for a 40% threshold.

But in a speech to union lawyers in London, Mr McCluskey said the right to strike was "hanging by a thread" and had to be vigorously defended.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Conservatives said the law would set a higher bar for strike action

"Should there be a Conservative majority in May, there will be a new attack on trade union rights and democracy.

"The bar for a strike ballot will be raised to a level which hardly any MPs would get over in their own constituencies, by a government which has refused our requests to use modern, more effective balloting methods.

"When the law is misguided, when it oppresses the people and removes their freedoms, can we respect it?

"I am not really posing the question. I'm giving you the answer. It ain't going to happen."

Unions have pointed out that only 15 of 303 Conservative MPs elected to Parliament in 2010 received more than 40% of the vote.

Mr McCluskey, whose union is Labour's largest financial backer, said the time had come to ask whether unions could stay within the law any longer while continuing to mount a "decent defence" against abuse of workplace rights.

'Law is an ass'

Such are Unite's concerns, he claimed, that the union's executive is recommending to members that the words "so far as may be lawful" are removed from its constitution.

"This proposed change in the constitution of the biggest union on these isles marks the sorry place we have reached in our national democracy. These words will go not because we are anarchists, not because we are suddenly planning a bank robbery.

"But because we have to ask ourselves the question, can we any longer make that commitment to, under any and all circumstances, stick within the law as it stands?

"Unite remains determined to operate ever more effectively within the law, even when that law is an ass and ill-serves our people.

"But restricting the right to strike, attacking the capacity for trade unions to organise and conduct our own business in line with our own rules, belong to last century's consensus."

The Lib Dems have blocked any moves to change the law to make it harder to strike.

Speaking in Parliament last July, Mr Cameron said "the time has come to look at setting thresholds in strike ballots", citing the example of a walkout by a teaching union which he said had the support of fewer than 30% of its members in a ballot.

"It is time to legislate and it will be in the Conservative manifesto."

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