Tory plan could end stoppages in public sector

Union proposals are toughest for years, writes Barrie Clement
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The Independent Online
If Ian Lang is to be taken seriously, the Government is considering the introduction of a law which could weaken trade unionism more than any legislation introduced since the Conservatives came to power in 1979.

By selectively removing immunities from unions engaged in strikes in monopoly services, the Government could make industrial action virtually impossible among millions of employees and would set back the collective rights of workers by a century.

But is Mr Lang to be taken seriously? How far is he prepared to go? Whitehall officials have indicated privately that the President of the Board of Trade is simply indulging in pre-election populism. The suggestion may well appear in the Conservative manifesto, but civil servants argue that the legal difficulties are such that it is highly unlikely to see the legislative light of day.

There is always the possibility, however, that Mr Lang is in earnest. His senior advisers insist that he is.

Under the proposals, presumably, the Communication Workers' Union could have been sued by the Royal Mail which lost business through the present postal dispute. The union could also have been taken to court by other companies and individuals who could prove a material loss as a consequence of the 24-hour stoppages. Both the rail unions - Aslef and RMT - may have been liable to legal action for damages incurred through the London Underground stoppages. The RMT could have been sued for recent "overground" walkouts.

Ministers would have to decide which services came within the scope of the act. Mr Lang's advisers are keen to ensure the law covers any monopoly service. Sources close to Mr Lang argue that limited industrial action might not fall foul of the law, but the shutdown, of, say BT, would probably come within the scope of the act.

Removal of immunities could backfire. If bona fide unions found it difficult or impossible to lead strikes, workers might be tempted to form their own informal groups to organise industrial action. If such groups had no assets, then individuals would be the subject of litigation, leading to the seizure of personal property. Do the Conservatives really want to go to those lengths?

Even Baroness Thatcher was finally convinced that removing immunities was not a practical proposition.