Addressing delegates at the GMB union’s conference in Brighton, the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, was booed and heckled after he threatened that any kind of coordinated strike action against the government’s economic plan may lead to tougher union laws:
“We are undoubtedly entering a difficult period. Cool heads will be required all round. Despite occasional blips, I know that strike levels remain historically low, especially in the private sector.
“On that basis, and assuming this pattern continues, the case for changing strike law is not compelling.
“However, should the position change, and should strikes impose serious damage to our economic and social fabric, the pressure on us to act would ratchet up.
“That is something which both you, and certainly I, would want to avoid,” he said to loud jeers from the audience, at which point the GMB president Mary Turner had to intervene saying, “You may not like what you are hearing, any more than I do, but please listen.”
In response to Cable’s speech, Len McCluskey, general secretary of the UK’s largest union Unite, said Mr Cable ought to be ashamed:
“How can a professed liberal seek to crack down on human rights?”
The GMB’s Paul Kenny made a comparison with government response to events abroad, accusing Cable of double standards:
“Government ministers come onto the TV and the media, saying it’s ok to have protests and strikes in Egypt but when it comes to workers’ protests in this country we think we should legislate them out of business,”
“It’s double standards. They wouldn’t apply the same rules they’re talking about applying for trade union ballots as they would do in electing MPs, or even the recent AV referendum,” he added.
Sarah Veale, the TUC’s head of equalities and employment rights, pointed to the inconsistency with regards to the government’s stated commitment of protecting civil liberties:
“The UK already has some of the toughest strike legislation in the developed world so there is no justification for further curbs, as the minister himself acknowledges.
“Restricting the right to withhold labour would also be completely at odds with the coalition’s commitment to civil liberties.
“Disputes are always better settled through negotiation with unions, rather than veiled threats to rig the law in the employers’ favour.”
Meanwhile, at a regular daily media briefing, the PM’s spokesman said:
“The position remains the same, which is that we don’t have any current proposals to amend strike laws, but [the Prime Minister] has said in the past that he is happy to look at the argument.
As the Business Secretary has been saying this morning, despite occasional blips strike levels in this country remain historically low.
As he says, at the moment the case for changing strike law is not compelling. Clearly it is something we keep under review, and if the position were to change and we were to see a wave of irresponsible strikes, that is something we would want to look at very carefully.”
This threat to the unions is actually loud and clear: the government saying that if you don’t behave yourselves, then we’ll restrict your freedoms. It’s a warning that any toddler can understand. If it is veiled, then it is only to the extent that any new measures will be brought in as a reaction against “irresponsible strikes”. Given the current situation, however, any major industrial action within the next five years (at the very least) will undoubtedly be deemed “irresponsible”. So in effect then, the government’s message to the trade unions is simply to shut up and go away —or else! Which aside from being arrogant and controlling, also reveals a little more of the Coalition’s real agenda, which differs from the Tory’s old agenda only in severity, whilst proving yet again, that we’re really not all in this together.