Ministers have no qualms about standing up to the unions in the current climate, as you can see from the FT’s splash this morning about their attempts to slash redundancy terms for 500,000 civil servants. The coalition is trying to push through a move – initiated by Labour last year - to reduce the maximum pay-off from 6.5 years to 2. It was thwarted in May when the Public and Commercial Service Union won a judicial review against it.
But is the government prepared to go to war against the union movement? This is the implication from this morning’s Times front page – “Ministers in secret talks to toughen strike laws” – which claims that ministers could re-examine changing strike laws if imminent job losses lead to widespread industrial unrest.
I heard a similar rumour last week but was told the government had not changed its position since late June. Then, the CBI called for a change so that strikes could only happen if 40 per cent of the total workforce backed action – rather than, as present, a majority of those who voted. The business group was apparently slapped down by David Cameron, whose spokesman said there were “no plans to change strike legislation.”
Having “no plans” is not the same as ruling something out indefinitely, of course.
And some members of the government – if not the prime minister necessarily – are keen to take up the gauntlet on this. The Times names Philip Hammond, transport secretary, as being “in favour of the idea”. Doubtless other more rightwing cabinet ministers may feel the same way. (During the election campaign there was a strikingly anti-union briefing by Pickles, Villiers and Gove).
The counter-argument will be that the coalition has enough on its hands without opening a new industrial relations front. Conciliatory voices will point out that days lost to strike actions in recent years have been a small fraction of their peak in the 1970s. Unions themselves believe that the rules should if anything be changed in their favour, pointing to the way in which companies such as Network Rail and BA have been able to take legal action to try to halt strikes. (The CWU expects BT to start legal action today if members vote for a strike).
If Cameron was to change the rules of engagement (which have been in place since the Trade Unions and Labour Relations (Consultation) Act of 1992) at such a sensitive time he would be accused not only of changing the rules to suit himself (or “gerrymandering”, in the words of one union contact) but also of pouring fuel on fire. Such a move would not exactly chime with his broad church, inclusive style of politics. Then again, who predicted Margaret Thatcher’s assault on the unions when she became prime minister in 1979?
UPDATE: The unions aren’t happy. Bob Crow of the RMT says the government is “declaring war”: “They are running scared and are now looking to tighten the noose of the anti-union laws around the workers necks to choke off resistance,” he declares.
The RMT reckons the pressure for the change is coming in part from Tory GLA members, none of which won more than 26 per cent of votes of all their own electorates. “RMT would challenge each of them to resign their seats and fight again to see if they can get an absolute majority at the same level that they are demanding of the unions.”