PA industrial correspondent Alan Jones looks at the government’s controversial Trade Union Bill

Alan Jones Europe, UK, Union busting
PCS members on strike at the National Gallery, 2014 © Tim Lezard

PCS members on strike at the National Gallery, 2014 © Tim Lezard

The government may be in for a shock if it expects the controversial Trade Union Bill to stop strikes, cut union membership, and weaken the influence of unions in the workplace.

Measures including a 50% threshold in strike ballots, controls over ‘facility time’ for union reps, and stopping union subs being taken directly from wages under the check-off system, are described by ministers as “sensible and fair reforms.”

But unions are in no doubt that the real aim is to make life much more difficult for organised labour, marginalise unions and cut down on industrial disputes.

Major campaigns are now being drawn up to challenge the Bill, which has its second reading in Parliament tomorrow.

The legislation could face legal challenges, will be attacked by the government’s political opponents, and face industrial and public protests.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said an attack on trade unions was “unfinished business” for some elements within the government as she gears up to launch a fierce attack on the Bill during her speech to the TUC Congress in Brighton tomorrow.

Industrial disputes have been increasing in recent years, with 156 separate stoppages in the 12 months to June, 28 more than the previous year.

Around 670,000 working days were lost in the latest year, fuelled by recent strikes in the NHS over pay, which saw groups of workers including midwives, taking industrial action for the first time in their lives.

But union leaders point out that disputes are still at historically low levels, with strict measures already in place over balloting and picketing.

They highlight growing concerns about the civil liberties implications of trying to undermine fundamental rights like the right to strike.

There is also a belief that the legislation will have the opposite effect, with unions now facing the prospect of contacting their members about switching from check-off to direct debit for paying subs in a massive exercise which could re-energise union activity in the workplace.

Union officials already engaged in the process report new members being signed up as they are told about the merits of membership, while many local authority employers are said to be against stopping check-off.

“We pay the employers to collect the subs, so especially in these times of austerity, they are not happy about losing money,” said one senior union official.

Ministers used the recent strikes on London Underground as proof that action was needed to crack down on ballots to ensure a 50% turnout, and support from 40% of those eligible to vote in disputes in health, education, transport, border security, nuclear decommissioning and the fire service.

In truth, unions should be achieving at least a 50% turnout in ballots – and officials privately admit unease in pursuing a dispute if a low number of workers have voted.

The Bill will make unions re-double efforts to persuade people to vote in strike ballots, should make members more determined to take part – and might even lead to an outbreak of unofficial action.

An autumn of discontent beckons.

  • Alan Jones is PA’s industrial correspondent

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