The CBI will today launch a campaign for the biggest overhaul of trade union legislation since Margaret Thatcher confronted militant workers in the Eighties. The employers' group will call for a series of reforms to the law, amid concern amongst businesses that the forthcoming public spending review could trigger a wave of strikes.
The CBI will argue that the public mood is implacably against strikes and that employment legislation needs to be updated in order to reflect the way labour relations have developed over the past 20 years.
The move reflects a hardening of attitudes towards industrial action following a series of disputes in which employers have turned to the courts to prevent staff going on strike. Workers at British Airways, Network Rail and Royal Mail have all had plans to strike thwarted in this way.
"Strikes should always be the last resort, and in most cases common sense prevails and negotiation wins the day," said John Cridland, the CBI's deputy director-general. "Industrial action is never inevitable, and we want to see public-sector managers and unions going the extra mile during the difficult times ahead."
The CBI will call for a string of changes to the law, including giving employers the right to hire temporary agency staff to cover striking workers, and an increase in the notice period required for industrial action, from seven to 14 days. The employers' group also wants the law tightened on ballots, with new rules requiring at least 40 per cent of all those balloted to vote for a strike, limits on what aspects of disputes each ballot should cover, and a crackdown on which union members are eligible to vote.
Employers should be given the opportunity to put their side of the argument directly to staff before any ballot is held, the CBI believes. It is also advocating increases in the compensation unions are liable to pay if they fail to observe properly the law on strikes.
Such reforms would be seen as a major curb on unions' ability to confront employers. However, the CBI said legal changes were necessary to protect both the public and businesses: "When a legitimate strike threatens to disrupt the services on which the public depends, it is only right that it should require a higher bar of support, [which] is why no strike should go ahead unless 40 per cent of the balloted workforce has voted for it," Mr Cridland said. "While workers have the legal right to withdraw their labour, employers have a responsibility to run their businesses. The public increasingly expects it to be 'business as usual' even during a strike, so firms must be allowed to hire temps."
The CBI's campaign is certain to be vigorously opposed by the trade union movement. Brendan Barber, the general secretary of the TUC, has already vowed to fight the proposals.
"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," Mr Barber said.
"The CBI proposals are a fund-amental attack on basic rights at work that are recognised in every human rights charter, and [they] will be dismissed by any government with a commitment to civil liberties."
Mr Barber said the CBI misunderstood the motivations behind strikes.
"It is particularly disappointing for the CBI to take such a one-dimensional view of industrial relations, in which strikes are always the fault of unions and never that of management. Strikes are always a last resort, as union members lose their pay," he said.