Public supports proposed ban on some public sector strikes

Andrew Grice
Tuesday 28 June 2011 00:00 BST

People support calls for a change in the law to ban strikes by public sector workers if there is a low turnout in strike ballots, according to a survey for The Independent.

They also believe that trade unions will fail to win public sympathy if they carry out their threat to stage co-ordinated strikes in their battle over pensions.

Unions vowed last night to press ahead with a strike by up to 750,000 public employees on Thursday, after talks with ministers ended without a last-minute breakthrough.

The survey by ComRes found that, by a margin of 50 per cent to 32 per cent, people agreed that the Government should ban public sector strikes unless there has been a turnout of at least 50 per cent in the ballot to approve the industrial action.

The finding will increase the pressure on ministers to bring in a legal minimum turnout – an idea favoured by the London Mayor, Boris Johnson, the Confederation of British Industry and some Tory ministers and backbenchers. But Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Business Secretary responsible for strike laws, is more cautious, believing such a move could inflame the current dispute.

By 55 to 26 per cent, people believe the unions will not enjoy public sympathy if they call the co-ordinated strikes threatened for this autumn if the current conflict is not resolved.

However, the poll also found some support for the unions' position in their battle with the Government over proposed reforms to public sector pensions. By 49 to 35 per cent, people agree that the workers have a legitimate reason to strike over the issue, and believe, by 46 to 35 per cent, that the Government would be wrong to change the pension schemes if most workers affected opposed them.

Significantly, the Government appeared to soften its stance in yesterday's talks at the Cabinet Office. In a concession to the unions, it offered separate negotiations on the local government pensions scheme after warnings that it could collapse if workers pulled out as a result of the reduced benefits proposed by Government.

Ministers and union leaders agreed to keep talking about pensions into next month in the hope of averting walkouts this autumn. But there was not enough progress to avoid Thursday's 24-hour strike by teachers, college lecturers and civil servants.

Francis Maude, the Tory Cabinet Office Minister, and Danny Alexander, the Liberal Democrat Chief Treasury Secretary, said after meeting union bosses yesterday that the talks were "constructive" and insisted the unions were wrong to strike while they continued. "The recent ballots show there is extremely limited support for the kind of strike action union leaders are calling for. Less than 10 per cent of the civil service workforce has voted for strike actions and only about a third of teachers," they said.

Brendan Barber, the TUC general secretary, said there was still a "major gap" between the two sides but saw "some movement in [the Government's] thinking on some issues". He said: "They are trying to look at ways of giving greater assurance that the value of people's pensions will be maintained."

The poll highlighted sharp differences over the strikes among the British people. Some 71 per cent of Labour supporters say the strikes are legitimate, but only 25 per cent of Conservative voters agree.

According to ComRes, Labour enjoys a four-point lead over the Conservatives. Labour is on 40 per cent (up 3 points since the last ComRes poll), the Tories on 36 per cent (down 1 point), the Liberal Democrats on 11 per cent (no change) and other parties on 13 per cent (down 2 points).

ComRes interviewed 2,059 adults online between June 24-26 for their views on the proposed strikes.

At the sharp end of the strike

Siobhan Freegard, 43
Runs a website
Ms Freegard has two sons, Sean, 14 and Aran, 8, and one daughter, Aisling, 11

"The way this has been done makes things awkward for me. But even though it is an inconvenience, I support the right to strike of my children's teachers because they should have a fair deal.

"I've cancelled all my meetings and will also look after other friends' children. I will have the children at home and I plan to work around the situation. The problem is that one of my children will be at school and another at home.

"On Friday, when the headmaster told the children which classes would go ahead and which would not, some of the kids burst into tears. Many didn't understand why their siblings had the day off and they still had to go in.

"Gove's idea of parents running some classes is virtually impossible; most mothers would not want to have their child taught by someone who is not properly equipped."

Lisa Hitchin, 49
Freelance writer
Has two sons: Alfie, 13, and Vincent, 14

"The Government's proposal of getting parents to act as 'strike breakers' is irresponsible. Haven't any of the Cabinet heard of CRB checks? Are teachers' roles nothing more that of child minders who can be satisfactorily replaced by untrained mums at a few days' notice?

If the Government thinks teachers do more than that – and I assume it does – then these mums aren't actually 'breaking' any strike at all, they are simply offering a free child-minding service while childrens' educations are interrupted. Plans to let them do so are potentially dangerous and foolish.

I will have my two children at home with me. I am lucky because I work from home. I wouldn't dream of sending them off to be cared for by a parent who has not necessarily been checked and who I do not know. It is not that I am suspicious of anyone nearby but the checks are in place for a reason."

Deborah Segalini, 42
Full-time mother
Ms Segalini has two daughters: Ambra, 10 and Matilda, 4

"If the teachers think it is the right thing to do, they should be able to strike. I normally have only three hours away from my children so it is no big change for me. I think I will use the opportunity to take them both on a politics lesson and take them to London to see how it's done.

"People have the right to withhold their labour even if their job is teaching, so I am broadly supportive of the strikes, although I cannot say I am an expert because I have not been party to the negotiations.

"It just happens; I understand how it is inconvenient for some, but these things just happen."

Donna Pinnell, 32
Personal Assistant
Ms Pinnell has one daughter, Darcie, 6

"I am frustrated with what the strikes are going to mean for me. I have a daughter and I am pregnant with another child so the industrial action will force me to take time off for no reason. It is something which is entirely out of my control. It means that I lose a day of holiday, as will a lot of other parents I know. It would be easy to say that it is selfish but the strike action is the wrong path to take if teachers want to gain better financial support, as well as that of the public. They will not gain the support of the parents but I understand why they are taking action. I suppose that domino effect is in their interests; they need to make their presence felt."

Helen Wooldridge, 39
Runs her own business
Ms Wooldridge has one daughter, Rosie, 7, and two sons, Jacob, 5, and Jasper, 1.

"Working from home, I have to fit around my children's school hours and childcare, so my work time is precious. But I will just have to take the time off.

"I trust my children's teachers. They are striking for a good cause and we need good, professional conditions for teaching in the future. They don't take decisions like this lightly, so I support the action and I am willing to live with the inconvenience in the short term.

"I hope other parents will work together so that the whole working day is not lost. I will share childcare with another parent so I can work half the day, she can work the other."

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