Vince Cable Warns Unions Against Widespread Strikes
Business secretary heckled as he tells GMB
conference that widespread action would
increase pressure for tightening of anti-strike
By Helene Mulholland and Polly Curtis
June 6, 2011
The business secretary, Vince Cable, was booed and
heckled as he warned unions that widespread industrial
action over spending cuts could ratchet up pressure on
the government to make it harder for workers to strike.
Cable's comments - backed by Downing Street and the
chancellor, George Osborne - prompted a furious
reaction from union leaders, who accused the government
of issuing "veiled threats" to deny workers the basic
right to strike by tightening what they say is already
among the developed world's toughest strike
The Liberal Democrat minister gave a keynote address to
the GMB's [general trade union] annual conference
in Brighton, in which he set out the government's
desire to have a "mature relationship" with trade unions.
But he issued a warning to the "usual suspects" calling
for general strikes and widespread disruption in
response to the cuts.
Cable told the conference there was currently no
"compelling" reason to reform the laws - an action some
rightwingers, including the London mayor, Boris
Johnson, have called for.
However, he said this could change if a wave of strikes
caused "serious damage" to the country's economic and
It was the first explicit acknowledgment by a coalition
minister that the government could legislate to prevent
widespread strikes. Other ministers refrained amid
fears of increasing tensions at a crucial point in
talks designed to avoid a mass walkout across the
Cable said: "Later this month, we may very well witness
a day of industrial action across significant parts of
the public sector.
"The usual suspects will call for general strikes and
widespread disruption. This will excite the usual media
comments about a summer or an autumn of discontent, and
another group of the usual suspects will exploit the
situation to call for the tightening of strike law.
"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 ... the pressure
on us to act would ratchet up. That is something which
both you, and certainly I, would wish to avoid."
The minister's trailed comments were endorsed by
government, with the prime minister's official
spokesman warned that a review could be prompted by any
large scale strikes.
Clearly, it's something we keep under review," a
spokesman said. "If the position were to change and we
saw a wave of irresponsible strikes, then that's
something we would want to look at very carefully."
And prior to Cable's speech, Osborne told the BBC News
Channel: "Of course we want a constructive relationship
with the public sector unions. We have got important
negotiations under way, for instance on pensions.
"What Vince is saying is if we go into a cycle of
destructive strikes we would have to think again - but
let's hope we don't get there."
Paul Kenny, the general secretary of the GMB, said
Cable's decision to take the "draconian move" of
threatening unions was an "insult to working people".
"We wanted him to come here and talk about jobs ... not
just the public sector issues, but private sector [and]
manufacturing issues too.
"We've got cuts in every service, tens of thousands of
vulnerable people in residential care ripped off by big
business. What's his answer? Attack the unions."
Sarah Veale, the TUC's head of equalities and
employment rights, said: "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."
Mark Serwotka, the leader of the Public and Commercial
Services union, said: "The right to strike is a basic
"Public sector workers are currently facing
unprecedented ideological attacks on their jobs,
pensions, pay and conditions which will throw the
economy into further recession.
"This government, and the bankers who caused the
economic crisis, are inflicting the greatest damage to
our economic and social fabric by cutting public sector
jobs, axing vital services and attacking communities."
The Unite leader, Len McCluskey, said: "It is no
coincidence that the government is engineering this
fight now. All eyes have been on our comatose economy
and the government's colossal failure to address this.
"Talking tough about cracking down on working people is
a circus engineered by a government that is clueless
about the real problems facing this country."
Cable's comment about the "usual suspects" calling for
legislation to be strengthened appeared to be aimed at
Johnson, who critics say is pressing the government to
beef up anti-strike laws because of his failure to make
progress on a no-strike agreement with London's tube
Johnson has called for a legislative change that would
only allow strikes to go ahead if supported by a
majority vote of a union's membership rather than only
those opting to take part in a ballot.
Neil Carberry, the director for employment at the
Confederation for British Industry, said there was a
"strong case" for changing the law.
"We hope that union leaders will work constructively
with employers to avoid strikes, because the number one
priority should be securing the recovery," he added.
"Strikes should always be a last resort, but the
government needs a contingency plan to ensure that
disruption is kept to a minimum in the event of
industrial action. Our proposals include giving the
public more notice before a strike goes ahead and
allowing businesses to hire agency workers directly to
cover striking workers."
Talks with the unions to negotiate a new pension deal
for state employees - the only issue all the public
sector unions have in common, and therefore the only
one in which they could launch joint industrial action
- are ongoing.
It is understood the discussions are making little
headway, with ministers refusing to back down on
increasing workers' contributions. Other unions
representing up to six million public sector workers
could then edge towards industrial action.
One breakaway group of unions representing 500,000
state employees - including the PCS civil service union
and some of the teaching unions - is currently
preparing to strike on 30 June. Schools, courts, ports
and Whitehall could all come to a standstill.
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