September 14, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith
Today Parliament has been debating, and will continue to debate, the Trade Union Bill brought forward by the Conservative Government. The Bill was trailed in the Conservative manifesto, so they have a mandate to try to get it on the statute book, but the devil is in the detail. That detail is worth looking at.
First of all, it is important to note that most peoples’ view on this Bill says more about them than it does about the Bill. There has been plenty of posturing today by Labour MPs about how they are going to Parliament to vote down the Bill, there has been plenty of aggressive talk, nay threats, from Union leaders about what their members might be forced to do should the Bill go through. Commentators from the left are spouting fury and commentators from the right are spouting justification. Those who are affected constantly negatively by strikes may be for the Bill and those whose lives and working conditions are protected by Unions will be against the Bill. Myths have been presented as fact and logical fallacies put forward masquerading as sensible reasoning.
So perhaps it is the words of David Davis, the Conservative MP, and civil rights campaigner who backs the majority of the Bill, that we should heed most. Davis expressed concerns that said elements of it were like something out of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain. A close look at the Bill’s provisions help to see why this is so.
Before I start, I want to be clear, trade unions are a necessary and important part of our democracy. They protect union workers from company abuses such as unsafe working conditions, long hours and arbitrary hiring and firing. This gives workers more job security and piece of mind as it reduces the stress of possible layoffs and cuts in wages and benefits. They give workers a chance to speak at the same negotiating and power levels of managers and owners, collectively bargaining for wages, benefits and an acceptable work environment. They save businesses time and money as they prevent managers having to address worker grievances and negotiations one by one. At their best, unions create a stable, long-term employment relationship between companies and employees, good for both.
I also want to be clear, trade unions do not go on strike lightly. A successful trade union will not need for their members to go on strike as they will have achieved a deal acceptable to their members without the need for strike action. In a way, strike action, which involves workers giving up their pay and invoking considerable public disquiet at the effects on them, is a last resort that union leaders would like to avoid at all costs.
Yet without the ability to threaten a strike, and carry out that threat, the power relationship between unions and employers would be too unbalanced.
On the other hand, politically motivated strikes, intended, as in the reported works of some union leaders in the past and in the present to “bring down the government” – particularly any Tory government – can lead to the accusation that unions are trying to usurp democracy and exert too much power. There were certainly times in the 1970s when trade unions were effectively running the country, and it was the inability to find a solution to this that led to the electorate giving Margaret Thatcher “permission” to bring in new laws to deal with them, leading to the massive industrial unrest of the 1980s.
Yet have a look again at the picture at the top of this article. There is simply no argument to suggest that we are in a period of industrial unrest now. Strike days are few and far between. The biggest difference is that with the onset of social media and a generally anti-union press, when they do happen trade unions have to answer a lot of questions.
The Conservatives put the following in their manifesto: “Strikes should only ever be the result of a clear, positive decision based on a ballot in which at least half the workforce has voted. This turnout threshold will be an important and fair step to rebalance the interests of employers, employees, the public and the rights of trade unions. We will, in addition, tackle the disproportionate impact of strikes in essential public services by introducing a tougher threshold in health, education, fire and transport. Industrial action in these essential services would require the support of at least 40 per cent of all those entitled to take part in strike ballots – as well as a majority of those who actually turn out to vote. We will also repeal nonsensical restrictions banning employers from hiring agency staff to provide essential cover during strikes; and ensure strikes cannot be called on the basis of ballots conducted years before. We will tackle intimidation of non-striking workers; legislate to ensure trade unions use a transparent opt-in process for union subscriptions; tighten the rules around taxpayer-funded paid ‘facility time’ for union representatives; and reform the role of the Certification Officer”
In addition to that – they have decided to introduce fines of up to £20,000 on unions if pickets do not wear an official armband. Also, approved picket supervisors would have to take “reasonable steps” to tell police the name, contact details and location of those on the picket line” This, I believe, is what prompted David Davis to say “I agree with most of the trade union bill. I think it’s very sensible … but there are bits of it which look OTT, like requiring pickets to give their names to the police force. What is this? This isn’t Franco’s Britain, this is Queen Elizabeth II’s Britain.”
I have written before (click here) about what I think about the argument that it would be unfair for a strike ballot to have different turnout and vote thresholds than normal elections such as Police and Crime Commissioners, referendums, local elections, and in fact any other election. It is a logical fallacy because in those elections the results directly affect those who do or don’t vote, but votes to strike don’t just affect those who do and don’t vote, they shut schools, the tube, parents needing to take a day off work to look after their kids etc.
Yes, it must seem daunting that to have a strike, public services unions, who have not had a 50% turnout in years, would need over 80% to vote “Yes” in order to reach that 40%, the answer for them is to increase turnout in those ballots. To be fair, the unions have already suggested that it should be possible to use electronic voting rather than all voters having to use paper and post. But to say, as Frances O’Grady, President of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) says that the turnout threshold “threatened the very principle of the right to strike” is silly hyperbole.
O’Grady has joined other union leaders in suggesting that if workers lose the right to strike over their grievances they may “find other ways to express their discontent”, which sounds like a threat to me. Some union leaders want to fight this legislation by calling a ‘General Strike’ of all union workers, which, in my view, would merely reinforce the Government’s suggestion that trade unions were too ready to mis-wield their industrial power. They could, if they are not careful about their rhetoric and behaviour, find themselves making the Government’s case for them.
I’ll repeat again, Trade Unions hold a vital place in our democracy. Without them working conditions, pay, benefits and job security would be far worse than they are. It is the job of Trade Union leaders to defend their vested interests, and the job, I suppose, given the sheer volume of funding that comes from the unions, of Labour MPs to amplify these interests (although most Labour MPs genuinely believe in the principles they are sticking to by doing this).
I think that the Tories have come to the table with their first negotiating position, quite prepared to negotiate away some of the more extreme provisions in the Bill. I for one would be uncomfortable for personal reasons with anyone having to be identified by an armband. I worry that it was timed on purpose to coincide with being the first day of Parliament after the new Labour leader was elected, and so hasn’t quite been thought through properly. But then again, I fear both sides aren’t really thinking anything through. I hope I am wrong.