General secretaries give evidence in Parliament

Tim Lezard Europe, UK, Unison, Union busting

ParliamentUnions have told MPs the Trade Union Bill is a major attack on workers’ rights.

Giving evidence in Parliament yesterday during the committee stage of the controversial Bill, UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said: “My view, very strongly, is that the Bill as worded is a major attack on workers’ rights in this country and makes industrial relations, in particular in public services, far more difficult.

“There are three major acts of Parliament covering what we do. We are the most regulated section of the economy, if not in the western world. This only adds to that over-regulation.”

He called the “double threshold” being proposed for industrial action ballots “the negation of democracy, denying the right of public service workers with national agreements to use industrial action as a final resort.

“We want to increase participation,” he added. “But you don’t do it in this draconian way.”

UNISON felt that the way to achieve greater participation was to move towards e-ballots and workplace balloting, he said.

Mr Prentis pointed out that there were only 160 instances of industrial action last year, after 640 ballots – just a quarter, because in those other instances the unions had negotiated settlements.

And when one MP asked him a pointed question about lost productivity through strikes, he asked the member to consider the income lost by striking members.

“Our low-paid women can’t afford to lose a day’s pay. There must be something drastically wrong [for them to strike]. They are not motivated by aggrandizement, but by something that’s unfair.”

Asked to comment specifically on the Bill’s intention to scrap the check off system for paying subscriptions, he said: “These are voluntary arrangements with the employers, 9,334 overall, 7,242 in public services. The system works incredible well. To end check off would have a major effect on partnership working in health, in schools, in local government.”

Moreover, he said that no employer had said anything to the union about wanting a blanket end to the check off arrangements.

Mr Prentis said the Bill’s attack on facility time was “regressive” and if enacted would have a detrimental effect on the “fabric of the work we do as a union”, including the work of learning reps, which benefits thousands of low-paid public service workers.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady also gave evidence, saying the legislation would make it impossible to defend jobs and pay and conditions at work.

She said: “We believe that the real aim of this bill, and the proposals that go with it, is to give employers new ways to take unions to court, impose penalties, and to seek damages and injunctions against unions. The approach is straight out of Norman Tebbit’s text in the 1980s.”

The committee also heard that the UK’s devolved administrations have said they will not implement the act, if passed – meaning that there was a “real danger” that English workers could be the worst treated not just in Europe, but in the whole of the British Isles.

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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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