Bring strike ballots into the modern age and let us go digital, says TUC

The TUC has written to Business Secretary Vince Cable urging him to modernise the rules that govern strike ballots and bring union voting methods into the 21st century.

In the run up to, and during, last week’s strike involving workers from across the public sector, parts of the government – including the Prime Minister – were calling for the thresholds on strike ballots to be raised, despite the fact that no MP in Westminster secured the turnout in the last election that they would have unions achieve.

Keen to explore ways that industrial democracy could be enhanced, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady has called on the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to change the rules so that union members might use their work computers, home laptops, tablets or smartphones to vote in future strike ballots.

In the letter, Frances writes: “In the run up to and during last week’s public sector strike much of the rhetoric coming from parts of government was about making it harder for ordinary workers to go on strike by raising the bar on the number of votes needed, with a view to either stopping lawful industrial action taking place altogether or exposing unions to claims for damages. In our view this amounts to an attempt to ban strikes by the back door.

“The rules governing industrial action ballots in the UK are already very stringent and while there is absolutely no case for imposing a tougher turnout threshold – that not a single Westminster MP met at the last election – unions are keen to explore ways that industrial democracy could be strengthened. I know that you are on record opposing any further tightening of the law in this area and supporting the introduction of electronic balloting.

“Electronic forms of vote casting would help bring union balloting into the modern age. Other UK voting systems have moved with the times, but union strike ballots are firmly stuck in the last century. Regulated by the outdated 1992  Trade Union and Labour Relations Act, unions still have to ask their members whether they want to take action in a letter sent to their home addresses.

“This means of communication works for some, but for many workers leading busy lives, it’s all too easy for the ballot envelope to be put to one side – at best only opened after the deadline or, as is more likely, simply recycled.

“Whilst any strike ballot where a majority of members in a workplace vote for action is a legal and legitimate result, unions would clearly prefer to see more people participating. But to do that we need to update the rules and let people vote on their digital devices.

“Workers who want to continue voting using traditional postal methods would of course still be able to do so. But electronic communication via a secure online link which union members could access either at home or at work, or when they’re out and about via their smartphone or tablet, would be a simple and inexpensive way of increasing turnout.

“Three-quarters of adults now have access to Broadband at home, 94 per cent own a mobile and seven in ten a smartphone. With these figures going up all the time – even amongst low-income workers –  it seems strange for some ministers to slam unions for low turnouts whilst having little enthusiasm for the 21st century methods of voting that would encourage greater participation.

“Unions already use digital means to reach members and when they use these modern methods to gauge feelings over pay offers for example they can secure turnout as high as 96 per cent. And in a recent electronic consultative ballot, the Royal College of Midwives secured a turnout of 47 per cent, with 94 per cent of members prepared to consider some kind of industrial action over pay.

“If unions were allowed to go digital, strike votes would still be secure, organised by independent scrutineers. There of course might be initial problems – some workplace firewall systems can sometimes block emails relating to e-ballots – but these could be solved easily enough. Independent balloting organisations could also offer electronic votingkiosks to allow a secret vote on site in the workplace.

“I would be grateful if you could find the time now to take these sensible proposals forward. This would help counter the views of those in government who seem less interested in enhancing democracy and more in getting the law changed to ensure that ordinary people – especially those in the public sector – are never able to strike again.”