Nothing turns this country’s conservatives into “protectors” of democracy quite like union elections. The same right-wingers who impose constitutionally dubious voter-ID requirements become inordinately focused on protecting the franchise when policing union ballots. Hence the proliferation of “right-to-work” legislation in many states, which undermines union-security obligations at organized shops. The right also opposes any policies that would ease union certification votes, spuriously justifying its proposals as protecting the “secret ballot” or preventing “forced unionism.”
Meanwhile on the other side of the pond, the UK’s Conservative Party has proposed higher participation thresholds when it comes to unions voting on whether or not to strike, calling for a minimum level of approval from all eligible voters in public sector strikes. The Tories are pushing a 40 percent threshold on all strike votes in health, education, transport and fire services—so a vote for a strike would only count if four-in-ten of all eligible members voted. Under such a quorum rule, if there is even a unanimous vote to go on strike with a turnout of 39 percent of union members, the vote would be invalid.
Proponents, who promote pro-austerity, pro-privatization agendas, complain that of “102 strike ballots between August 2010 and December 2014,” only about a third involved a majority of the workforce. Calls for a strike-vote threshold gathered steam last spring after a massive London Underground strike was authorized by a vote involving a minority of the workforce.
Labor advocates see this as an effort to eviscerate public-sector unions as they struggle to battle deep budget cuts.
Imagine if every local city council candidate needed 40 percent approval from all eligible voters, or school board elections required more than half of a district’s voters to cast votes? Even Congress routinely conducts business without reaching a formal majority quorum.
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin told BBC Radio that the proposal would ensure “that the rights of unions are balanced with the rights of hard-working taxpayers who rely on key public services.” The right-wing TaxPayers’ Alliance called it a protection for public services against “a minority of militant union activists,” according to The Telegraph.
Trades Union Congress General Secretary Frances O’Grady sees a more pernicious form of minority rule at work by the 1 percent, stating that the voting requirement would “effectively end the right to strike in the public sector.” In contrast with the Tories’ populist overtures, O’Grady noted that a measure that could actually increase worker turnout, a secret online ballot, is opposed by the conservatives. Evidently, democracy is in the eye of the beholder.