Friday 7 August 2015
Tory Attacks on Trade Unions is Escalating a Class War
Ever since Edward Heath’s Tory government was brought down by the National Union of Miners (NUM) in the 1970s, the Tories have been determined to emasculate trade unions in the UK.
Margaret Thatcher didn’t make the same mistake as Heath in the 1980s, devising a meticulously planned, and ultimately successful campaign to destroy the NUM as a force for working class advancement. All the powers of the state, including violence, were unleashed upon the union by the Thatcher government, which broke the 1984-5 strike and had a devastating affect on all workers’ confidence in the powers of trade unions to influence industrial relations.
Following Thatcher’s fall in 1990, the subsequent Major Tory government rammed home the message with employment legislation severely restricting union’s abilities to operate effectively. Laws on picketing and those requiring postal ballots before industrial action (including tough and expensive rules for record keeping which allow loop holes for employers to gain court injunctions against action) were introduced. New Labour only slightly liberated unions from these laws in 13 years in government.
Trade union membership has more than halved since the high point of the late 1970s in the UK, with the majority of members (around 6 million) employed in a shrinking public sector. The various privatisations and the increasing ‘flexibility’ of labour wrought by employment laws in this country make it difficult for unions to organise, compared to the life long, all working at the same factory model of those now distant days.
Where workers are employed on zero hours contracts, insecure temporary contracts or are involuntarily self employed, with scattered (often in their own homes) workplace locations, it is very difficult to organise and even convince people of the value of union membership.
Some of this changed landscape is down to technological change, internet, telephony etc which also leads to off shoring of some types of work. But mostly it is the legal and economic changes over forty years that have seen to the decline of union membership and effectiveness.
I would say that some of the unions have been slow to adapt to the new labour market and could have done more to recruit this disparate workforce, but this pales into insignificance compared to deliberate politically induced situation faced by them.
The latest Tory attack is in the shape of the Trade Union Bill (2015), and will once again make even more difficult for unions to operate.
It will require that strikes are made unlawful unless 50% of those being asked to strike vote in the ballot and at least 40% of those asked to vote support the strike in most key public services. This double threshold would have to be met in any strike called in health, education, fire, transport, border security and energy sectors – including the Border Force and nuclear decommissioning.
Further changes to the existing laws will:
Propose that unlawful picketing should become a criminal as opposed to civil offence and new protections should be available for those workers unwilling to strike.
Compel unions to renew any strike mandate with a fresh ballot within four months of the first ballot and give employers the right to hire strike-breaking agency staff as well as require a union to give the employer at least a fortnight’s notice before the industrial action starts.
Empower the government to set a limit on the proportion of working time any public sector worker can spend on trade union duties.
Give the government certification officer powers to fine trade unions as much as £20,000 for breaches of reporting rules including an annual audit on its protests and pickets.
Require a clear description of the trade dispute and the planned industrial action on the ballot paper, so that all union members are clear what they are voting for. This is riddled with loop holes for employers to exploit and get strikes ruled illegal.
End the ‘check off’ system whereby employees can have their union subs deducted from their wages by their employer.
With wages falling for most workers since 2003 in the UK and strikes at an all time low, and union membership in steady decline, and with inequality rising sharply, this is an ideological move by the government, pure and simple.
Rather than address the skyrocketing pay of company bosses, industrial scale corporate tax-avoidance, unscrupulous managers, exploitative employment agencies and the crippling effect of the supermarket monopoly, the government instead turns its fire on trade unions and seeks to regulate them out of all existence.
There appears to be a determination from trade union leaders that this Bill is indeed a ‘die in the ditch’ matter and civil disobedience, direct as well as industrial action is being talked about as a way to fight this assault on working people and their representatives.
All on the left in Britain should support the unions attempting to fight off this blatant opening of a class war by this nasty and vindictive government of the wealthy.