Unions fight back after Tory crackdown on workers’ rights

Tim Lezard Europe, UK, Union busting
TUC demonstration in London, September 2015

TUC demonstration in London, September 2015

Trade unions have come out fighting after the Tories today announced the biggest attack on them in thirty years, with one general secretary comparing the crackdown to Nazi Germany.

The Trade Union Bill will require a 50% turnout in strike ballots and 40% of support in disputes affecting “core” public services such as health, education, fire, transport, border security and energy.

There will also be a four-month time limit for industrial action and an end to the restriction of employing agency workers as scabs.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “This Bill is an unnecessary attack on workers’ rights and civil liberties that will shift the balance of power in the workplace.

“Getting a pay rise or defending terms and conditions will become far harder for working people. Even when ballots meet the government’s new thresholds, employers will soon be able to break strikes by bringing in agency workers.

“If ministers were really interested in improving workplace democracy they would commit to online balloting. However, they would rather silence protests against their cuts to children’s centres, libraries and social care services.

“These new restrictions on facility time will make it more much difficult for trade unions to solve problems at work before they escalate into disputes.

“Making it a criminal offence for seven people to be on a picket line is a waste of police time and not something you would expect in a country with a proud tradition of liberty.”

ASLEF general secretary Mick Whelan said: “I think it’s shameful that this Tory government is coming after the one group of people – the trade unions – who are able to standup for ordinary working people as well as the poor and the weak, the oppressed and the dispossessed. They talk about essential services. But all services are essential.

“It smacks of Germany in the 1930s when trade union leaders, and activists, were rounded up, and imprisoned, and, in some cases,executed. The Nazis banned unions, and strikes, in 1933 and that is what the Tories are trying to do now. They want to effectively neuter the unions – the only part of civil society now able to fight back – in Britain.

“The Tories are trying to smash the trade unions because they know we are the only thing that stands between them, and the class they represent, and a return to Victorian values – tax cuts for the bankers and the brokers who brought Britain to the brink, for a very few at the top of the pile, and a life on zero hours contracts and the minimum wage for the rest of us. There is you notice, no new law to deal with rogue employers who break agreements.

“It is ironic that this government, in the year we celebrate the civil rights brought in by the sealing of Magna Carta 900 years ago, is determined to bring in a law which strikes at the democratic heart of this country.

“Because it is the right of every worker to withdraw his or her labour. We are not slaves and this is not a slave state. No man or woman should be forced to work by the threats of a bad employer or a bad government.”

GMB general secretary Paul Kenny said: “The unintended consequence of the parts of the Bill dealing with strike action will be to seriously damage industrial relations. The Bill removes all incentives for employers to heed their own workers and settle disputes.

“When workers jump through the draconian hurdles required for their vote for strike action to be lawful employers can ignore the will of their own workers. Workers will have to give an employer 14 days notice of strike action. This is more than enough time for employers to legally hire another workforce to break the strike.

“This blatant one-sided approach is guaranteed to poison the relationship between workers and their managers. It will lead to even more trouble. The proposal on opting into the political fund is also one sided. It is clearly designed to seriously damage the Labour Party. It is clear that the Tory Party High Command intend to make the Labour Party bankrupt by cutting off the main source of funding that they have relied on since the 1930s.

“This is aimed at undermining political campaigning by unions on behalf of their members and communities. It is intended to reduce the ability of trade unions to provide funding including donations to political parties and campaigns.

“This is a completely one-sided approach to party funding. There are no proposals to force companies to ballot shareholders or to place a cap on donations from wealthy people when funding the Tory Party.

“Conservatives will be able to stuff their coffers with swag money from hedge fund tax bandits and then have the cheek to lecture trade union members about accountability.

“Since the early part of the last century trades unions have been the only organisations in the UK not allowed to spend their general funds to support political parties. Instead they have been required to set up political funds for that purpose. In the 1980s the Tories introduced further law requiring trades unions to hold a postal ballot of individual members every ten years on the issue. GMB members have on four occasions voted overwhelmingly to retain a political fund since then – the latest vote being in 2014.

“This is the second time that the Tories have aimed to bankrupt the Labour Party. They did it before in 1928. The same old Tory class warriors want to do it again nearly 90 years later.”

ATL general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said:“The Trade Union Bill is yet another instance of the government putting ideology ahead of the rights of working people.

“The current balloting rules belong to the 1960s.  But instead of looking at ways to improve turnouts such as through electronic voting, in all elections including general elections, the government has spent its time drafting a Bill to reduce democracy in workplaces.

“This government seems to fear democracy – its Education and Adoptions Bill will limit parents’ rights to object to schools being converted into academies and now the Trade Union Bill will make it hard for teachers, lecturers, support staff and heads to exercise their democratic right to strike.

“Striking is a last resort, and not something ATL members do lightly.  We have only held two national strikes in over 130 years, but natural justice demands that it remains a realistic last resort. “There was not a minimum turnout or voting threshold applied to the recent Scottish referendum, so why is it legitimate to apply them to strike ballots?

“If the government allows employers to use agency workers to cover for colleagues on strike it would risk inflaming workplace disputes and make it harder to resolve any disputes.  And this raises practical issues of whether agency staff could be CRB checked in time to ensure they are safe to work with children.”

“Restricting trade union facility time would be a false economy since trade union representatives help schools and colleges save money by reducing conflict at work, improving health and safety, helping staff work as efficiently as possible, minimising the turnover of teachers and support staff, and boosting teachers’ skills – all of which benefit children.  Local authorities and schools already have flexible, reasonable and regularly reviewed arrangements to ensure staff are released for trade union work at times which fit their local circumstances.”

RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “We know that these brutal new anti-union laws are specifically targeted at our members in the transport sector who have shown in recent months that they have the guts to stand up and fight for jobs, pay, services and safety. The response of this Government mirrors the actions of hard-right regimes throughout history – shackle the unions, criminalise it’s members and use a raft of new laws to try and bankrupt workers’ organisations.

“It is not lost on us that this legislation has been tabled just a few days before we celebrate the Tolpuddle Martyrs at their annual festival – a group of Dorset farm labourers criminalised and ‎exiled for daring to organise a union.

“The trade union movement will unite to fight this brutal assault on the most basic of human rights and that campaign will be taken into the communities who stand to lose access to safe and reliable services as this noose of the anti-union laws is twisted round our necks. ”

NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates said: “The provisions of the Bill come as no surprise. The deep hatred of the Government for those who fight for the rights of working people and stand up for fairness and equality is writ large in the Bill.

“It is not only the provisions of the Trade Union Bill which should be a cause for deep concern but what the Bill represents.

“This Bill follows hot on the heels of the Lobbying Act, introduced shortly before the election, to restrict opposition and introduce state supervision of trade union membership. “Attacks are planned by Government on the Human Rights Act, which includes the right of freedom of association and the right to education.

“The renegotiation of the UK’s membership of the EU focuses almost entirely on the treaty provisions which affect the rights of working people.

“The Education and Adoption Bill not only removes parents’ fundamental rights to have a say in the type of school in which their child is educated, it abolishes any mechanism through which they can raise legitimate concerns.

“The extensions to the legislation on extremism give breath-taking powers to Government further to trample the rights of individuals.

“The Trade Union Bill and all this other legislation have a chilling common theme, to restrict, stifle and silence opposition and attack our fundamental democratic rights and freedoms. “Now is the time for all those who value the hard fought for democratic rights and freedoms to expose and oppose the Government’s real agenda.”

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Tim Lezard

Campaigning journalist, editor of @Union_NewsUK, NUJ exec member; lover of cricket, football, cycling, theatre and dodgy punk bands

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