May 10, 2011 10:27 pm

Boris v strikers

UK coalition should be wary about tightening strike laws

Boris Johnson’s patience has snapped. London’s mayor, infuriated by yet another threatened strike on the city’s underground network, is demanding that the government tighten Britain’s industrial relations laws to make stoppages harder to call. While this newspaper sympathises, it believes the coalition should be cautious.

Mr Johnson is right to be up in arms about the frequency of industrial action on the underground. Recent years have seen too many strikes, often on the flimsiest of pretexts, which cause enormous disruption and irritation to commuters. The prospect of union militancy disrupting next year’s London Olympics is disturbing.

While the latest threat – from one of the more militant unions representing underground workers, the RMT – may yet be averted, it is typical. It is hard to see why the whole rail network should be disrupted over the fate of just two dismissed train drivers – both of whose cases are being heard by industrial tribunals (and one of whom is due to be reinstated).

The nub of the mayor’s argument is that strike ballots are too easy to pass because there is no requirement for a minimum level of turnout. The RMT’s vote went through with the support just 26 per cent of those eligible to participate. This allows a union to use a ballot as a negotiating tactic rather than purely to obtain consent for the final resort of a strike.

To counter this, Mr Johnson wants the bar raised. He believes that at least 50 per cent of those eligible to vote should do so for a ballot to be valid. There is certainly a valid argument to be had. Workers are more mobile and less unionised these days. While the right to strike is an important freedom, it should be subject to proper consent and used responsibly as a last resort. This is why the coalition has been cautiously looking at changing the law.

The problem is that Mr Johnson’s colourful language (he has called ministers “lily-livered” for not legislating) and championing of a single case is unhelpful. The government is engaged in complicated negotiations with public sector workers over employment and pensions. These would be jeopardised were it to appear to embark on an anti-union crusade. Transport for London, which runs the Tube, may not be blameless in its handling of the dispute.

While there was a crying need to amend the UK’s labour laws a quarter of a century ago, it is now more a case of fine tuning. This debate calls for cool heads. Mr Johnson should simmer down.

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