TUC – blocking online balloting for strikes is “absurd” and “hypocritical”

Commenting on reports today (Sunday) that the government is to block trade union members from voting online during strike ballots, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said:

“This is a feeble attempt to look tough by a government that wants to stoke a culture war against unions.

“It is absurd and hypocritical to stop union members from voting electronically on the key workplace issues that affect them.

“Online voting is just as safe as postal balloting, and it is used by many organisations – including the Conservative Party.

“This proves that the government’s Trade Union Act was always about undermining unions and workers’ right to strike – not improving workplace democracy.”

An independent review (commissioned by the government) concluded in 2017 that online balloting was safe and secure to use during strike ballots.

But ministers have continued to drag their feet on electronic balloting and now look set to block it.

Legal opinion

The TUC has today published a legal opinion which undermines government claims that ministers cannot get involved to help resolve the rail dispute.

The legal opinion, commissioned by the TUC from Michael Ford QC of Old Square Chambers, advises that:

  • The Transport Secretary has “very extensive powers” over what can be agreed between rail operators and unions, and “very significant contractual power” to direct how industrial disputes are handled.
  • Rail operators are not free to agree terms and conditions with their employees without the involvement of the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps.
  • Before discussing any changes to pay, terms & conditions, redundancies, or restructuring with rail unions, rail operators must agree a mandate with the Transport Secretary.
  • If a rail operator fails to agree a mandate before any such discussions, it can face financial penalties.
  • The Transport Secretary has issued a ‘Dispute Handling Policy’ that rail operators must comply with, and he has “overarching direction and control of the strike… either because the strategy is agreed with the Secretary of State or because the Secretary of State simply directs how the strike is to be handled”.
  • These provisions mean that “Train operators do not have freedom to negotiate the matters which have given rise to the current dispute”.

Frances O’Grady said:

“The Prime Minister and his Transport Minister have misled the public.

“When they said the government has no role in handling this dispute, that’s not true. When they said negotiations are just for the employers and the unions, that’s not right. We always believed that Conservative ministers had the power to pull the train companies’ strings, behind the scenes. And this legal opinion on rail contracts confirms it.

“The Transport Secretary could unlock this dispute. Instead, he has toured TV studios throwing fuel on the fire and trying to turn working people against each other.

“Britain deserves better. We deserve honesty from our government. We deserve fair negotiation so we can make fair agreements.

“This week, Britain needs its Conservative government to stop stirring and to start helping to solve this dispute. Rail workers, who the Transport minister once described as pandemic heroes, deserve job security and the decent pay rise that they have earned.”