Unions under attack in Britain – but they asked for it

Can’t hear you. Gareth Fuller / PA Archive/PA Images

The nature and scope of the Trades Union Bill removes any doubt there may have been surrounding the government’s objectives. This is to reduce Britain’s trade unions – still the enemy within as far as they are concerned – to a level of insignificance hitherto unknown.

Unrestrained by the Liberal Democrats, David Cameron’s Conservatives have launched an attack on the unions that is more radical than anything introduced by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. The proposed changes go much further than those trailed in the run-up to the election.

The government position is being bolstered by an increasingly strident, right-wing media which appears hell bent on using 1970s rhetoric to paint the unions in as bad a light as possible. Union barons may well have ruled the roost four decades ago, but now they are few and far between. Unions too are a shadow of their former selves. Even so, it seems that a few days of strike action on the London Underground has the government in a state of panic and the press denouncing unions as public enemy number one.

Likewise the significance of days lost due to industrial action is lost in hyperbolic statements. Although days lost in 2014 were almost double the previous year, they were roughly half the number lost in 2011. There was no “good news” story in the Daily Mail about that. Although the rise in 2014 is mainly attributable to a number of big public sector strikes, the upward trend does make it easier for the government to argue in favour of increased regulation.

Draconian new laws

If and when the new legislation is introduced, the balance of power will be firmly in the hands of employers. The extension of notification of industrial action from seven to 14 days will give the employers longer to put contingency plans in place. This, combined with the ability to employ agency staff to replace striking workers, will undermine the collective power of unions. Making unlawful picketing a criminal offence rather than a civil one is draconian and, arguably, not far short of intimidation itself.

One fruitful area for employers to seek High Court injunctions to stop industrial action has been post-ballot information. Unite found it difficult to meet its statutory obligations in the British Airways cabin crew dispute when only four pieces of information were required to be communicated. The new proposals impose far greater demands on unions, up to seven separate statistics will be required. The High Court is likely to be busier in future.

The tightening of the law relating to industrial action comes as no surprise, but the devil is in the detail. The definition of “important public services” appears fairly innocuous; health services, education below 17 years of age, fire services, transport services, nuclear decommissioning and radioactive waste management, and border security.

But also included are “activities that are ancillary to the provision of important public services”. What these ancillary activities are remains unclear. Does this include private services contracted into the public sector? There is a danger these ancillary activities become whatever the government wants them to be and a simple means of increasing the scope of the legislation.

The removal of the check-off system, through which union subscriptions are deducted from employees’ wages, will also have a major impact on union finances. Some are already struggling, hence the decision by the Public and Civil Services Union to sell its Clapham offices to save money. Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock may well argue this change is a modernising step.

But Hancock’s comment that the change makes it easier for members “to choose whether or not to pay subscriptions” makes the government’s objective clear – a reduction in union membership. Replacing the check-off with direct debits will result in some members not bothering. The evidence of the claimed £6m cost-saving on administration is somewhat tenuous. Claims that subscriptions paid under the new system will give union members greater protection under the Direct Debit Guarantee Scheme are also flimsy.

The proposals create a two-tier system under which union members employed in the public sector will be subjected to more stringent rules than their private sector counterparts. Those in the public sector will be denied the check-off those in the private sector will not. Strikes in the “important public services” – such as nursing, ambulances and fire services – require a greater level of member support than elsewhere, but this might creep into other parts of the public sector and, indeed, the private sector though the backdoor.

The provision of facilities time was introduced for the furtherance of good industrial relations. A distinction was drawn between “duties” and “activities”. Giving the government the ability to set (an undefined) maximum hours a public sector official can spend on union duties will do little to foster a healthy employment relationship.

Asking for it

Did the unions bring it upon themselves? Did they invite trouble by deliberately kicking the Tory hornet’s nest? Calling strikes after ballots with low turn-outs, some of which were two years old, did not break the law. They may have been questionable, but they were legal. Almost four years ago I predicted that strike action based on low turn-outs and old ballots would prompt the government to take action. Now they have done so.

Unite has already thrown down another gauntlet by removing the words “so far as may be lawful” from its rule book. It remains to be seen whether it is prepared to follow this through.

The savagery of the Trades Union Bill is not far short of the Combination Act 1799 in restricting unions’ ability to protect workers interests. Sadly workers still require protection from unscrupulous employers. The major challenge facing Britain’s unions is mobilising the apathetic membership to participate in ballots. Something they have failed to do in many cases for a very long time. Unless they can, there is a danger they will become irrelevant.