A load of ballots! Unite’s mandate for strike action distorted by the Mail

Today’s story is about industrial action ballots. It’s prompted by this report from the Mail Online which carries the headline:

Held to ransom by 1,000 tanker drivers: Petrol stations face closure as less than half union’s members vote for strike

Now I want to stress that I have no strong opinion on the merits of the tanker drivers’ dispute. I don’t really understand what the strike is about and have no opinion as to whether the drivers have a case or not, much less whether strikes are a good idea. I’m an anorak, remember – I only care about getting the law right.

The Mail’s report claims that ‘only a minority of union members voted for the strike’ and describes the ballot results like this:

Across these organisations, the union has 2,062 members.

But only 1,001 voted in favour of striking – 48.5 per cent.

The union achieved its slender 55 per cent majority for strike action because 12 per cent of members failed to vote.

London Mayor Boris Johnson yesterday renewed his demand for a change in the law to make strikes illegal unless at least half the union members vote in favour.

There is an important point being made here about the future of industrial action law. The idea that a strike ballot should only be lawful if a majority of those entitled to vote (rather than those actually voting) vote in favour of action has been kicking around for years. In fact it was in the 1997 Conservative Party manifesto. It is still very much a live issue today and I’m sure that without a Liberal Democrat running the relevant Government department the change would be on the way to the statute book already. As it is, it only takes one high profile strike to put the issue right at the top of the business agenda.

Seen in that context, it is clear that what the Mail is doing here is seeking to boost the argument for a change in the law by showing how narrow and undemocratic this particular decision to strike is.

Now, I don’t doubt that the total number of votes in favour of strike action is less than 50 per cent of the total number of those who were entitled to vote. But to express the results as the Mail does is to seriously mislead. Unite have not conducted one big ballot to decide whether to call a national strike.  They actually carried out 7 entirely separate strike ballots. They are required to do this by law as their workers are in dispute with 7 different employers.

In five of the ballots the workers voted for strike action and in two of them the workers voted against (with one of those two voting for action short of a strike). The union therefore has a mandate to call for a lawful strike against five of the seven employers. It is free to coordinate the strikes so that they happen on the same, or consecutive days, but it is important to bear in mind that there will be five different strikes, each based on a separate ballot.

It is not clear from the article whether the Mail understands that this means that for the two employers whose workers voted ‘no’ there will be no strike. Any strike in those two businesses would not have the support of a ballot and would be unlawful.  There is, therefore, no sense in which the workers who voted ‘no’ in those businesses are being outvoted by those in the other workplaces who voted ‘yes’.  None of the workers participating in either of those ballots – whichever way they voted – is going to be asked to take part in a strike. Their ‘no’ votes have won the day and have to be respected.

The article quotes the managing director of JW Suckling saying ‘I don’t really know what this strike is about as we have agreed our standards with the union’. Well, since the workers in his business voted overwhelming against any industrial action, he can rest easy. There will not be a strike or any other industrial action in his business. I hope the Mail made that clear to him!

What the Mail has done is present the figures so as to make the ballot sound as close and unfair as possible in order to fit with its own political agenda.  Had they reported the ballot fairly, they would have been forced to acknowledge that support for a strike in the five businesses concerned was solid. The full results of the ballots can be found in the links to the pdf documents at the bottom of this press release.  Those results show that in three of the five ballots the total voting ‘yes’ was more than 50% of those entitled to vote. If you were to amalgamate the votes in the ballots that supported the strike (you shouldn’t of course, but just for fun) you’d find that the results were as follows:

  • Total votes cast:                        1201
  • Votes for strike action:             827
  • Votes against strike action:     371
  • Spoilt ballot papers:                  3

That’s 68.85% in favour. I’m sure if Boris Johnson was re-elected Mayor of London with that sort of majority, he’d take it as a pretty convincing mandate.

One final point. It seems that total turnout across the five ballots was 78%. That suggests that 1,540 members were entitled to vote. The 827 ‘yes’ votes therefore represent 53.7% of those entitled to vote.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of the actual dispute, there is no denying that a clear majority of those who will be called upon to take part in one of the strikes will have voted in favour of strike action. Presenting the results as though the opposite is true is misleading and wrong.

About Darren Newman

Employment law consultant, trainer, writer and anorak
This entry was posted in Industrial action and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to A load of ballots! Unite’s mandate for strike action distorted by the Mail

  1. Pingback: Boris and the Ballot: why call for tougher strike laws? | A Range of Reasonable Responses

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