Make laws on strikes more stringent, says CBI

The CBI has called on the government to toughen the rules on strike action.

With fears that unions will turn increasingly to strikes in response to public spending cuts, the employers' organisation has urged a reform of the laws on industrial action.

In its report, Keeping the wheels turning: modernising the legal framework of industrial relations, the UK's leading business group outlined a package of measures to update employment relations legislation.

The law needs changing, the CBI argued, because 85 per cent of private sector employees are not members of a union, and most employers negotiate with staff or their representatives to bring about changes in the workplace.

The CBI called for the threshold for industrial action to be raised so that strikes can only go ahead if 40 per cent of balloted members vote in favour of action, as well as a majority of those voting.

Currently, strikes can take place if a majority of those voting support it, irrespective of the turnout.

In the event of a strike, the CBI said, businesses should be allowed to keep trading by recruiting agency staff in order to provide essential cover for striking workers.

As the law stands now, firms can recruit temps directly but not through an agency.

Other proposals included increasing the notice period for industrial action from seven to 14 days after the ballot takes place so as to give businesses more time to prepare.

Ballot mandates should be limited to the original dispute, not extended to other matters.

Only paid-up union members should be able to vote, and there should be a single legal definition of a union member.

Unions ought to maintain up-to-date records, and they should conduct an annual audit of their membership.

In the event of a strike ballot, employers and unions should each be allowed to send out concise statements along with the ballot papers, setting out the scope, nature and reason for the dispute.

Ballot papers should also include a notice warning that pay and non-contractual benefits can be withdrawn if an employee goes on strike.

And, the CBI added, unions should face realistic sanctions for failing to observe the law, with the cap on compensation raised and damages awarded per day of strike action.

John Cridland, the CBI's deputy director general, said: "Industrial action is never inevitable, and in most cases common sense prevails and negotiation wins the day. We want to see public sector managers and unions going the extra mile during the difficult times ahead and working together constructively to avoid damaging industrial action.

"When a legitimate strike threatens to disrupt the services on which the public depends, it is only right that it should require a higher bar of support. That is why no strike should go ahead unless 40 per cent of the balloted workforce has voted for it.

"While workers have the legal right to withdraw their labour, employers have a responsibility to run their businesses. The public increasingly expects it to be business as usual, even during a strike, so firms must be allowed to hire temps from an agency to provide emergency cover for striking workers."

Countering the CBI's claims, Brendan Barber, the general secretary of the TUC, said: "The UK has some of the toughest legal restrictions on the right to strike in the advanced world. Already the courts regularly strike down democratic ballots that clearly show majority support for action.

"The CBI proposals are a fundamental attack on basic rights at work that are recognised in every human rights charter, and will be dismissed by any government with a commitment to civil liberties."

Mr Barber described the CBI standpoint as a "one-dimensional view of industrial relations in which strikes are always the fault of unions, and never that of management".

He continued: "While strikes can inconvenience the public, fundamentally shifting the balance of power at work even further towards managers would be worse as it would encourage bad bosses and end up reducing standards across UK workplaces.

"No one welcomes the odd day's disruption, but it is a price worth paying for a fundamental right that helps deliver decent standards at work for millions each and every day."

Government ministers insist that there are no plans at present to change the laws on industrial action.