London mayor Boris Johnson has called for a change in the rules governing trade union strike action.
He told the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham that industrial action by London Underground members of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) and Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) was "nakedly and blatantly political, and has nothing to do with health and safety".
He also complained that only 35% of TSSA members and less than a third of RMT members voted in favour of strike action.
Indeed, the law governing trade union industrial action allows a strike to take place if it is backed by a simple majority of those who vote, regardless of the proportion of a union's membership that actually take part in the ballot.
Johnson said: "I say to our legislators in Westminster that a ballot can lead to strike action when less than half the members in that union take part, and it cannot be right that just over 3,000 people can hold London to ransom, stop London getting to work and jeopardise our economic recovery."
His comments came as thousands of RMT and TSSA members took part in a third 24-hour strike in protest at 800 job cuts and fears over safety on the tube network.
Responding to Johnson's criticism of the current legal framework, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: "The UK has some of the toughest legal restrictions on the right to strike in the advanced world. Already the courts regularly strike down democratic ballots that clearly show majority support for action."
While Bob Crow, the RMT leader, accused Johnson of pandering to the "Tory gallery", rather than meet with union leaders. He said: "Boris Johnson has chosen to launch an outrageous attack on tube staff fighting to defend safe staffing levels. Those same tube staff were hailed as heroes after the 7/7 bombings where they played a crucial role. It's those jobs that are under threat today.
He added: "As of this lunchtime all lines on the tube are either suspended or running a 'special service'. What Transport for London means by a special service is shuttle ghost trains running through closed station after closed station in contravention of the post-King's Cross fire safety regulations."
Unionist Chris Keates also pointed out that Johnson was elected with less than 50% of the vote in the 2008 London mayoral contest. He said Johnson's real objective in raising the bar on union ballots is to deny workers the right to strike. "The democratic process for any ballot is to give those eligible to vote the opportunity to do so. They have a right to cast a vote. They have the right to choose which way to cast their vote and they have the right not to cast a vote at all. Unions do everything possible to maximise turnout and participation."
He added: "The key question is why a higher bar is required for union ballots than, for example, electing the mayor of London or an MP? The turnout for Boris Johnson's election was 45.33%. To quote Boris Johnson's own words, does that mean this was a 'capricious decision on a minority turnout?'"
- Boris Johnson says tube strike is 'nakedly political gesture' (Guardian)
- Boris Johnson calls for change in strike laws (Telegraph)
- Tube strikes loom as London Underground seek to axe 800 jobs (The Solicitor)
- Trade union law (Findlaw.co.uk)
- Employment law Q&A (Community)
- Find an employment solicitor (Contact Law)