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Explainer: what’s up for debate in the Trade Union Bill?

The Conservative government is introducing a bill that will restrict the right of trade unions to organise and take industrial action in the UK. It has been criticised by union leaders and politicians across the political spectrum. Here’s why.

The proposals are a response to a number of public sector strikes in recent years, particularly where third parties (who have no association with the dispute) are affected by workers taking industrial action. This could, for example, include the travelling public in the case of rail strikes, or parents when teachers walk out of schools.

Here’s what the proposed changes will do.

Minimum turnout

Increase the minimum turnout for strike ballots to 50% of union members. For strikes that will affect essential public services (including health, transport, fire services and schools), the strike will also need the backing of 40% of eligible union members. Currently a strike is valid if it achieves a simple majority of those voting. The government’s business secretary, Sajid Javid, has acknowledged that “by increasing the thresholds it will certainly increase the hurdles that need to be crossed” and so make it much more difficult for unions to strike.

Picketing restrictions

Introduce new restrictions on picketing and make it a criminal (rather than civil) offence if picketers do not conform to the new rules and regulations. This would make strikes less effective and make picketers liable to being arrested if they fall foul of legislation.

Strike notice

Force unions to double the amount of notice they give before a strike can be held – from one week to two. They must reveal their plans for picketing and protests, which could include the timing of action, location, the number of participants involved, and what kind of equipment they will use such as loudspeakers and banners. If unions do not report their plans then they may face significant fines.

Replacement workers

Give employers the right to hire agency workers to replace striking staff. This change will be aided by the shift to a 14-day notice period and is one of the most controversial aspects of the proposed legislation. Hiring replacement staff for strikers has been unlawful since 1973 and if used is more likely to inflame an industrial dispute rather than resolve it.

Strike mandates

Compel unions to renew strike mandates every four months, whereas at present, provided a strike is called within four weeks of the ballot later continuous action can take place. The proposals will require re-balloting frequently in a long-running dispute.

Opting in

Require all unions to ask members whether they wish to opt into the political levy for membership and then repeat the question every five years. This would deplete a union’s political fund and inhibit its ability to campaign on a range of political issues.

Are the changes warranted?

Trade unions in the UK are a far cry from the powerful institutions they were in the 1970s. Back then unions had the power to mobilise their members and hold governments and employers to account. In 1970, around 70% of all workers in the UK were covered by voluntary collective bargaining agreements where workers’ wages and terms of condition were negotiated. Union membership peaked in 1980 to just over 13.5m, but since then membership has declined dramatically to around 26% of the UK’s workforce – about 6m workers.

Until the early 1980s it was generally accepted by the state, employers and unions that both workers and industry were best served by a voluntary industrial relations system where the parties negotiated to maintain industrial peace. Of course, this did not always work and negotiations broke down, which sometimes resulted in strike action – but not as often as is often portrayed.

If strike figures are consulted for the past 100 years, it is clear that, apart from a few periods in the early 20th century (including the General Strike of 1926), and the 1970s, there has generally been more industrial peace than industrial unrest.

But the 1979 “winter of discontent” is always invoked to show how unions became “too powerful” and out of control. This, however, is history and today things are very different. In 1979, 29.4m working days were lost due to labour disputes, but the average figures for the period 2010-2014 was just 647,000 showing a dramatic decline in loss of work days due to strikes over the past few decades.

Tilting the scales of justice

Power within the employment relationship has always been concentrated in the hands of employers and these proposals will create an even greater power imbalance. It has been criticised by many, including TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, who has said the purpose of the bill is to tilt the balance of power towards the employer and away from workers.

Even some Conservative MPs have serious concerns about the draconian nature of part of this bill. David Davis, for example, has even gone as far as suggesting proposed restrictions on pickets were like “something out of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain”.

Tube strikes have been unpopular with the public. EPA/Andy Rain

The proposals have also been criticised by Liberty, Amnesty International and the British Institute of Human Rights. The United Nations and the International Labour Organisation recognise that freedom of association and the right to strike as a fundamental principle whereby “restrictions on strike pickets and work-place occupations should be limited to cases where the action ceases to be peaceful”. According to them, the “legitimate exercise of the right to strike should not entail prejudicial penalties of any sort, which would imply acts of anti-union discrimination”.

The level of scrutiny, monitoring and reporting required by the Trade Union Bill is excessive, undermining freedom of speech and threatening the civil liberties of working people who should be free to defend their rights. It would seem that the purpose of this is designed purely to weaken, already weakened trade unions. Even former business secretary, Vince Cable, has said that this crackdown on trade unions is provocative, highly ideological and has no evidence base at all.

It’s possible that the government with its slim majority will not be able to push the bill through. What is clear, however, is that this Conservative government would like to weaken what little power workers have through their representative organisations, even when groups such as the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the professional association for the human resources sector, have gone on record to say that the bill is an unwarranted and “outdated response” to the challenges of modern workplaces today.

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