The Tories have launched a blistering attack on workers’ right to organise in unions. With the Labour Party putting up no opposition in parliament, David Cameron is targeting the force that can beat his ideological crusade against public services.
His business secretary Sajid Javid launched the Trade Union Bill 2015 last week. It aims to take control of strikes out of workers’ hands and into those of a regulator.
It wants to make union leaders police strikes instead of leading them. It will make it harder for workers to win a legal mandate for action—and easier for bosses to have them overturned.
Picketing in a way the bosses don’t like could even get you arrested.
Taken together, the attacks could make it almost impossible for many workers to strike legally.
With a Tory majority in parliament, this won’t be stopped by MPs. And while it’s right for unions to stand up to bosses’ legal challenges, the courts aren’t on our side either.
Whenever workers have stood up for their rights they have come up against laws rigged in favour of the bosses and their piles of cash.
The Tories have thrown down the gauntlet.
It’s not enough to expose their agenda, as the TUC tried to do last week, by showing how few strikes unions have been calling anyway.
It will take mass action to rise to the challenge. Ahead of the recent London Underground strike, transport minister Patrick McLoughlin swore, “We will not surrender to strikers.”
A total shutdown of the Tube shut him up. Union leaders have pledged to defy the new laws—and one of the biggest unions, Unite, even deleted the words “so far as may be lawful” from its constitution.
This must be turned into action. We’ve made laws unworkable before. If Cameron won’t back down, we can make Tory Britain ungovernable.
Never mind the ballots... here’s the bollocks
To make it harder to call strikes, the bill would rule out any ballots with a turnout of less than 50 percent.
For any workers wanting to strike in “important public services”, a total of 40 percent of those eligible to vote must vote for action.
On the surface this might sound like plenty. But the Tories formed a government with the votes of just 24.3 percent of all potential voters.
Some 274 out of 330 Tory MPs also fell short of 40 percent. That includes half the cabinet, including Sajid Javid.
The recent referendums that legalised gay marriage in Ireland and rejected an austerity deal in Greece would have been ruled invalid under the rule.
Margaret Thatcher’s law making unions ballot—rather than being able to vote in meetings—was always meant to make it harder for them.
Often workers who don’t vote still join action once it begins.
All unions will also have to provide information to members and bosses including how many votes were cast and how many were eligible to vote. This would give bosses trying to get strikes called off on a technicality something to start from.
Too important to strike - but not too important to cut
The Tories justify making strikes harder for some public sector workers because their strikes have “far reaching effects”.
But the same rules aren’t applied to votes for MPs whose decisions have far reaching effects across British society. And these services aren’t so important to the Tories when it comes to slashing them.
The draft bill says health, fire and transport services, and the education of those aged under 17 are important services. So are the decommissioning of nuclear installations, management of radioactive waste and spent fuel, and border security.
Others could be added at a later date.
But over 60,000 nursing related jobs were cut in the Tories’ first two years. Stress and workloads driven up by cuts have doubled the number of paramedics leaving the NHS, creating the first ever national shortage. Some 39 fire stations, 145 fire engines and more than 5,000 firefighter positions have been axed since the Tories came to office.
Run your battle plan past the enemy
Unions already have to give the bosses seven days’ notice before striking against them. The Tories want to make them hand over their entire battle plan to the enemy.
The notice time is to be doubled.
And bosses, cops and the Certification Officer must be given a full plan of picketing and protests that will be part of their action.
This is designed to help companies targeted to prepare their “reputational protection” in face of protests. It will also “make it easier for a union to repudiate” any workers’ action that isn’t part of the plan.
Changing the plan means having to update the notice to the bosses, cops and the Certification Officer.
Ballots already have to ask workers what type of action they are prepared to take.
This is to be made much more detailed, with the “nature of the issues”, the specific types of action and the time frame for them.
Mandates for action will expire four months after a ballot to rule out ongoing disputes based on “discontinuous action”.
But unions will no longer have to call strikes quickly to keep a ballot live.
Picket the bosses' way or face the cops
It could be illegal to call a scab a scab under plans to make “intimidation on the picket line” a new criminal offence.
Unions must appoint a picket line “supervisor” and put the police in contact with them.
They’ll be held responsible if anyone breaks what’s currently just a code of conduct.
That could mean ordinary shop stewards getting nicked. Or it could mean union officials micromanaging the picket line.
Either way it’s bad news.
The government “welcomes” evidence that intimidatory picketing is a problem along the lines of that in anti-union lawyer Bruce Carr’s review.
But tucked away in a footnote it admits the review has “issues with the methodology”—and none of the incidents he referred to may have actually happened.
Tweet at your peril
The government is worried that “new forms of protest” could support strikers and escape the anti-union laws.
This can mean anything from going on a protest to giving out leaflets or even posting something on Twitter.
Apparently, “this conduct is unacceptable and action is needed to prevent it happening in future, with enforcement of strong remedies where it does.”
The Tories aren’t content with the Public Order Act, the Protection from Harassment Act, the Highways Act, the Malicious Communications Act, the Criminal Damage Act and other laws.
So the anti-picketing rules will be expanding to cover people who never even come near the picket line.
Not striking? They attack you anyway
Don’t think the attack on union rights only covers those taking action.
New regulations will require all public sector employers to publish extensive information on union reps’ facility time, how they use it and much is spent on it.
The aim is “to encourage those employers to moderate the amount of money spent on facility time”—and weaken the public sector unions they’ve always hated.
A licence to scab
Even if your strike gets out the door, you have no right for it to be effective—as the Tories want to enshrine in law the right to scab.
Their manifesto pledged to scrap “nonsensical restrictions” on bosses using agency workers to break strikes.
According to their consultation for the bill, this could cut the number of working days “lost” to strikes by more than a quarter.
Restriction on political funds
It’s fine for the bosses’ CBI to fund political parties—but not for the unions. The Tories want to limit unions’ political funds to workers who specifically opt in every five years.
Unions must also collect political funds separately or provide a rebate. And they must publish full accounts of everything they’ve spent more than £2,000 on.
An Ofsted for unions - out of workers' own money
The bill devotes more pages to the Certification Officer who will enforce the laws. The Tories want to beef up this bureaucrat into a kind of Ofsted for trade unions.
This regulator is to be given new powers to investigate, enforce and impose fines of up to £20,000. The government can increase this at any time.
Unions must bow to any demand for information.
Inspectors will no longer need to wait for a union member to complain to launch an investigation.
And to add insult to injury, unions will be made to pay a levy to fund the officer.