Boosting participation is the key
James Ewington explains how the Government’s proposed new laws on strike ballots will affect unions like ARC.
First a bit of background for those who missed it. On 15 July 2015, the Conservative Government published a series of documents on reforms to trade unions. In broad terms, the proposition is that all ballots for industrial action must achieve a 50% turnout; and in “essential public services” (for which there is not yet a settled definition, but which is currently expected to include health, education, transport, fire, nuclear decommissioning and border security), 40% of all eligible voters must vote in favour of action. For ease, I’ll refer to these as the 50% test and the 40% test, respectively, throughout this article.
It’s easy to see this as a Conservative attack on working conditions and trade unions, and even easier to draw comparisons with mandates which allow you to, for example, govern the country. But what will the practical effect of the change be? One way to consider this is to look at historic outturns in strike ballots; and a recent paper does exactly that.
The paper looked at 162 successful industrial action ballots (158 for strikes, four for actions short of a strike), across 28 trade unions, from 1997 to 2015.
Interestingly, it’s the 50% test which has the major impact – although 158 of the 162 ballots examined delivered a majority vote to take action, only 85 of those would have reached the proposed turnout threshold. The additional 40% test would only have become effective in three of the 90 ballots (all in transport); and two of those achieved 38% and 39%.
The effect of the proposed legislation is also worryingly disproportionate: although just over half of the ballots would pass the 50% test, this only amounts to 444,000 of the 3.74 million workers voting. To put it another way, while the proposed legislation would have stopped about half of the strikes in the last 18 years, it would have prevented nearly 90% of trade unionists from going on strike.
The natural inference from the above is that large unions struggle to achieve high turnouts; and there are some interesting points later on in the paper about participation.
Many of those who don’t vote, or who vote “no”, will nevertheless end up taking action, out of solidarity with their colleagues. And there are also significant numbers who may join unions which are due to go on strike, specifically in order to be able to participate in the action. The paper argues that the ballot turnouts are therefore not a good proxy for strike support, although the obvious counter to this is that the ballots provide the mandate (and legal protection) for the strike.
The paper notes that higher turnouts are achieved where the ballots are in one workplace or area, or for a single employer; national ballots tend to return lower figures. It doesn’t seem that turnout is correlated with a “yes” or “no” vote in particular; although it is impossible to predict the effect of increasing turnout on the voting results, there is no evidence that getting more people to vote would change the result of the ballot.
There’s also evidence that unions with members who have close occupational identities tend to generate relatively higher turnouts. This is a difficult one for ARC: most of our membership continues to be drawn from the tax profession, but we are very keen to expand membership density within other professions (one example being the increasing number of ARC-graded staff who are supporting the Department’s digital transformation).
So what does all of this tell us, apart from the fact that the new legislation should worry all trade unions, not just those representing the so-called “essential” public services?
The obvious message is that we have to get better at emphasising the importance of high turnouts. ARC is a small union, and it wouldn’t take much to lift turnout figures. To put this into context, the paper suggests that one sixth of ballots in the last eighteen years fell in the 40-49% turnout range which would now just fall short of achieving a strike mandate. For ARC, with 2,400 members, a 5% uplift only means another 120 people putting their ballot paper in the post.
There are some other interesting points about leadership of the union, and professional identities and homogeneity of membership. These are subtler, but provide some food for thought for the future.
Understanding non-participation in trade unions is notoriously difficult: the people who don’t vote, won’t typically respond to surveys or come to meetings. But if anyone is reading this who didn’t vote in the last ballot, or doesn’t typically vote in ARC ballots, then please tell us why.