The current Tory government has long threatened, and is now enacting, legislation to require that a certain minimum turnout is needed for a strike, and with an even higher level for public sector. Specifically, for non-public sector there would have to be a 50% turnout. For public sector, there is an additional requirement that 40% of eligible members would need to back a strike.
The ostensible reason for this is that a number of strikes over the last decade have occurred with relatively small turnouts. For example, in 2014, the GMB union strike only had 23% turnout, and only 17% of eligible members voted in favour of a strike.
The current rules state that only a majority of actual votes are needed. In the most extreme (and unrealistic case), if a union had a million members, but only 1 person replied to the ballot, and voted for a strike, then all one million members would go on strike. This is obviously absurd. The other extreme of requiring all one million to vote in favour is equally absurd.
The situation as is favours the “noisy majority” – those who are politically active and radical are more likely to vote, and so they are more likely for their voice to be heard, giving their views disproportionate strength. It seems logical to me that there has to be a sensible minimum turnout and/or minimum ‘in favour’ – the question is what is that number?
The current law controlling this is the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 and there is a useful Code of Practice for ballots etc. It’s seriously complicated, but very interesting – well worth a read if you’re bored sometime.
One reason for low turnouts is the rules in the law/CoP about how a ballot must take place. The law is very prescriptive about how a ballot takes place, including the format of the ballot, and most importantly that the ballot has to be done on paper, generally sent via first class mail. There are lots of reasons for low turnout due to this – ballots can be lost in the mail, filled out incorrectly, people may be on holiday, or frankly people suck at remembering to post a letter in time etc. I think apathy is the main reason but have no evidence for that.
A simple way to partially meet these concerns – making turnouts higher and thus it more likely that turnout will be significant enough to be the obvious will of the union membership, is to allow electronic voting, ensuring of course that the confidentiality of the secret ballot is maintained, and the integrity of the result. This is a non-trivial, but certainly solvable, problem. Giving unions the option to do electronic ballots is, IMHO, the correct way to go.