If you could introduce any piece of law, what would it be? What issues would you address, if you were minister for a day?
Talking to people throughout Liverpool Wavertree, I know that all kinds of things matter to local people. Decent local schools. An efficient and fair health service. Care for the elderly. Opportunities for young people. Safe, stable neighbourhoods, free from litter and dangerous dogs. Help for local businesses. Safe transport. Affordable homes for young people starting out.
Well, Tory ministers have made it known what their priority is, and it’s Britain’s trade unions, and the laws that govern them. Really? Thirty or forty years ago, trade unions were top of the agenda. Most workers belonged to one. They had a seat at the top table. Union leaders were household names.
Today, the landscape has changed. The number of working days lost to industrial action is historically low. The challenge for the trade unions is that there are about 30 million people in the UK workforce, but only six million belong to trade unions. Whatever the problems of the UK economy, they are not caused by unions.
So why does the government want to introduce a new Trade Union Bill? Ministers say it is a modest change, designed to ensure that big public strikes are backed by a legitimate mandate.
The truth is somewhat different. This is a law designed to stop unions from their legitimate activities to defend their members. For example, the Bill says that unions will require a 50 per cent turnout in a ballot for strike action, and 80 per cent in favour of a strike. This isn’t North Korea. In a democracy, you just don’t see those kinds of turnouts. For example, the Tories’ candidate for London Mayor was selected by a vote of 10,000 voters in a potential electorate of millions of Londoners. Let’s be clear: his Bill is designed to ban strikes in key industries.
Where there are strikes, the union will have to give 14 days’ notice before taking action. Employers will be legally entitled to ‘bus in’ non-union workers to take over strikers’ jobs, crossing picket lines and trampling on union members’ rights. Pickets will have to be announced 14 days in advance.
The system of ‘check off’ whereby a union member’s subscriptions are deducted from their pay will be banned, causing more bureaucracy for union branches to collect their subs. This may lead to less money coming in to union funds.
It adds up to an unnecessary and unfair assault on the right to join a union, the right to organise and the right, in extreme circumstances, to go on strike. These things form part of our liberties in a free nation. They are the first to go in a dictatorship.
The Tories hate trade unionism because it represents different values to theirs. Unions offer help to the weak, and protection from the powerful. Take just one aspect of their work: safety reps. Safety reps prevent all manner of accidents and injuries in the workplace. They stop some injuries which would mean workers being off work. And they prevent stress which can lead to mental illnesses. So unions actually help employers by keeping the workforce in good mental and physical health.
They are based on the idea of solidarity and collective action. Unions have been around for hundreds of years, and make our society stronger and more civilised. Now is no time to undermine them and remove their legitimate role in our society.
I will be voting against the Bill when it comes back to Parliament, because it’s unnecessary, unfair and fundamentally unBritish. At a time when there are so many pressing issues for the government, ministers need to think again.