The haste in which the new Government introduced its wide-ranging and controversial Trade Union Bill should alert us to consider its reasons for doing so. Of course, the main ‘reason’, or so it says, is to legitimise strike action so that a minimum of 50% of those balloted actually vote, and, in the case of ‘essential’ public services, at least 40% of those eligible to vote must support strike action. It may be thought that such measures are just plain old common sense, with even Unite General Secretary, Len McCluskey offering an olive branch to the Government to agree to the new thresholds in return for flexibility in the voting system. Currently ballots must be conducted by post, which is both expensive and militates against a high turnout. McCluskey made his offer in return for allowing secure online voting in strike ballots.
McCluskey’s response shows that he is aware that the main thrust of the trade union movement’s campaign against the Bill runs the danger of falling into the trap the Tories have set. By focusing campaigning energies on the so-called ‘right to strike’, union leaders are fighting on precisely the terrain that the Tories want. The Government knows that public sector strikes are deeply unpopular with the public that is disrupted by industrial action. Low turnouts in ballots can only add to public discontent at such times. In fomenting that discontent the Government knows it can rely on the support of their allies in the press to widen those divisions. Even with its slim majority in the House of Commons, the Government will feel on safe ground while the debate takes place around the right to strike.
The reason for their sense of security is simply because the Trade Union Bill has nothing to do with legitimising strike action. The Government’s refusal to accept McCluskey’s offer to compromise on ballot thresholds exposes their real intent, which is nothing less than to try to diminish the effectiveness of trade unions to the point that they lose all relevance to members and potential members. Although the number of days lost to strike action has risen in the past two years, from 249,000 in 2012 to 440,000 in 2013 and 788,000 in 2014 the Government knows full well that the number of days lost to strike action is still very low compared to the 1980s when the figures were often millions of days lost per year. The slight increase over the past two years is still in line with the trend set since the 1990s. Industrial relations in Britain remains peaceful on the whole.
What is at stake in this bill is not so much the right to strike as the right to negotiate, and through negotiation to improve terms and conditions of employment. The proposed lifting on the ban on replacing striking workers with agency workers is designed to render ineffective even industrial action that passes the new thresholds. What the Government aims to do, once and for all, is to kill off the ‘union supplement’ which means that workers in trade union recognised workplaces have better working conditions (think British Airways) than workers in non-recognised workplaces (think Sports Direct). With fewer and fewer people joining a union as an automatic rite of passage, and with less than 14% of under 25 year olds in a union, the hope is that this Bill will see a mortal wound inflicted on the trade unions, who will find it harder to defend their members interests at work, and thus be at risk of losing them as a result.
The not so cunning plan is exposed by the other measures in the Bill that have had less media attention than the headline amendments to strike ballots and the dangerously bizarre requirements on unions to tell the police about ‘planned’ social media activity. These headline measures, important though they are, distract from the main purpose which is to cut the ground away from under trade unions and to bring them (and the Labour Party) to their knees, both financially and organisationally. The new power to limit how much facility time that trade union reps can have in the public sector is designed to break the vital workplace link to the members as well as the time to offer the sort of representation that only a well trained and experienced rep can provide. In many public sector workplaces, where pay is determined by a Pay Review Body, it is this representational work that makes up a significant proportion of a union’s unique selling point (USP). Many workers join unions for the protection that a union can offer through expert local representation. If unions cannot provide this service, then they are in danger of losing those members as a result. The Bill’s proposed restrictions on how unions can raise and spend money, notably on political campaigns, also underscores the Government’s real intentions. The requirement that members will need to opt in to a union’s political fund is a naked attempt to cut the funding to the Labour Party that relies heavily on union donations, as well as union capacity to campaign in their own right. But perhaps, most tellingly, it is the Bill’s proposal to end the system whereby unions collect member subscriptions through employer ‘check off’ from pay packets, is the most serious threat. It is rumoured that some unions may need to move up to 80% of their members on to direct debit payments. How many they can persuade to ‘re-join’ the union remains to be seen, but the threat to union finances is obvious.
Together with the restrictions on campaigning by charities and other voluntary organizations that were introduced in the last Parliament by the Coalition Government, the Trade Union Bill amounts to a fundamental attack on democracy itself rather than having anything to do with legitimising strike action. The measures are deeply worrying, and not just for trade unionists. Other players in civil society will lose powerful allies with great organizing abilities if trade union campaigning activities are curtailed. Good businesses will find it harder than ever to compete with the cowboys in the market place. This Bill shows that this Government is happy for Britain to find its way in the world at the bottom rather than aspiring to compete at the top. This Bill is bad for workers, bad for business and bad for Britain.