Rachael Maskell: Attack on union rights will be a recipe for strife
THE Trade Union Bill challenges the rights of staff to defend themselves at work. If we look back on our history, everything from weekends, annual leave, sick pay and maternity leave has been hard fought for by workers.
Made in Dagenham showed how women seamstresses took strike action at Ford to achieve “equal pay for work of equal value”. Industrial action has been used to achieve fairness, to protect people at work and to speak out against injustice.
Where workers are collectively organised in a union, productivity can increase by as much as 30 per cent; something our current Government needs to urgently grasp. Workers also get a far better deal, as research shows morale improves, along with recruitment and retention rates, while sickness levels fall. Staff are also better paid. Everyone gains from good industrial relations.
In Germany, one of the most successful economies, we see trade unions sitting on company boards and having a vital role in determining the future of the business. Industrial unrest is relatively rare.
So why introduce a Bill, which would breach the UK’s legal obligations under International Labour Organisation conventions and challenge human rights law?
Evidence shows that levels of industrial action are relatively low. These have risen since 2010, essentially in the public sector, and peaked in 2011 with the pensions’ dispute.
As a former union official, I was involved in the NHS pay dispute. The Government first breached its own commitment to staff on pay, serving up the fifth real terms pay cut in a row, amounting to at least a 15 per cent decrease. Jeremy Hunt, as the Secretary of State for Health, refused to sit down with the unions to try and find a solution for the best part of a year.
No worker ever wants to be in a position where they need to take industrial action, however it has to remain a final lever in a dispute where all else fails.
The Trade Union Bill seeks to make it virtually impossible to exercise this right. Current laws are challenging enough and employers frequently admit they don’t hold the data required, especially as services are continuously being reorganised.
In an age where most people have a digital relationship with their union, the fact that the law requires paper ballots to be filled in at home and notices to be faxed to employers shows how the law should be modernised. All these elements challenge a ballot turnout, so new majority thresholds cannot be demanded without balloting reforms.
The Government argue they need these thresholds only in specific services, to keep the public safe and keep schools open as a day’s strike action damages a child’s education, yet closing a school on polling day doesn’t?
The new laws will demand that this process is repeated every 16 weeks, following two weeks’ notice before the ballot. Anyone that has been involved in an industrial dispute will know that this will just intensify a dispute, leaving less time for resolution. Employers agree.
The new laws will also allow agency workers to replace strikers. Last summer a hospital illegally did this in Northampton. The NHS trust concerned locked out its workers, who were taking action short of a strike, and hired staff who did not have the competencies to work in the pathology department; putting the service and patients at serious risk.
Pathology staff wanted to return to work to ensure that the service was made safe, the Trust refused. During strikes in the NHS safe levels of cover has always been provided as workers care about their patients first and foremost.
This Bill isn’t trying to create an improved industrial landscape, but is a direct political attack on trade unions, making it impossible for workers to have a voice. Industrial academics believe that this will make our industrial landscape more volatile, not less.
Under the Bill, additional demands are made of unions. Historically, unions had to establish political funds if they were to engage in any political campaigning. These are not to be confused with affiliated political funds. Labour already requires membership consent for individuals to be affiliated to the party.
Within three months of this new Act being passed, all union members will have to individually consent to contribute to union campaigning funds. New members will have to opt in – and in writing. All expenditure of the fund of over £2,000 will have to be published; this means every leaflet printed, every campaign postcard, every batch of posters circulated.
Trade unions are voluntary, democratic organisations now facing state intrusion and restrictions seeking to outlaw legitimate protest and opposition, stifle free speech and choke off finances. It must be opposed by everyone who values freedom and the rule of law.
Rachael Maskell is the Labour MP for City of York.