How the Trade Union Bill looks from the shop floor

Make no mistake - this bill will result in pickets going to prison


Yesterday the government unveiled its long-feared Trade Union Bill, which represents the largest legislative attack on the trade union movement in over twenty years.

The headline-grabbing aspect of the bill is the introduction of turnout thresholds for industrial ballots. To be legal, 50 per cent of eligible workers will have had to vote in a ballot.

In addition, in certain key industries, 40 per cent of eligible workers will have to vote ‘Yes.’ So, for example, if you did achieve a 50 per cent turnout, you’d need an 80 per cent ‘Yes’ vote.

Leaving aside the obvious hypocrisy this being introduced by politicians whose mandate is subject to no such qualifications, it is clear what it is designed to do. Boris Johnson has been banging the drum for years for this or similar measures to prevent strikes on the tube.

Ironically, the mandates in the current industrial dispute on the London Underground would have cleared the hurdle. Reps can run around like blue-arsed flies to get the vote out in local disputes. In national disputes, where there will always be workplaces where organisation is weak, this is impossible.

There is no single national strike I can think of in the last five years which would have been legal under the proposed law. It is these strikes, the large set-piece strikes which tend to have more political overtones, which the law is designed to prevent.

Looking beyond this, there are even more worrying aspects to the bill. The government want to legalise the use of agency workers during disputes, taking us back to the Victorian days of employers bussing in armies of scab labour to break strikes.

The legal restrictions around picketing will be tightened, with criminal law coming into effect. Make no mistake, this bill will result in pickets going to prison, and that’s exactly what the government wants. They want us to be too afraid to undertake our democratic rights and duties as trade unionists, so that we throw in the towel.

Responses from the movement have so far been predictable. All the candidates for the Labour leadership have come out against it, but this begs the question: what is their attitude to the current laws which have shackled effective industrial action since the 1980s? Would they too be repealed under a Labour government? Would positive trade union rights be enshrined in law?

Union leaders have largely been ‘boxing clever’ in their rhetoric, if you can call it that. Frances O’Grady says the law will result in ‘wasting police time’ and ‘make it much more difficult for trade unions to solve problems at work before they escalate into disputes.’

Unite’s Len McCluskey, despite spearheading the recent removal of the words ‘so far as may be lawful’ from the union’s rulebook, is urging the government to see unions as ‘partners in productivity.’

As a rep and a branch official, I don’t really care about any of that. I care about a frontal attack on my rights and liberties. I care that I and my colleagues could easily be imprisoned for peaceful picketing.

I care that my union, which is a free voluntary association, faces intrusion into our internal affairs from a government which would rather we did not exist. Our democratic decision to withdraw our labour in pursuit of a better life is ours alone.

It is not the property of the government, still less the ‘digital marketing executive’ who complains in the Evening Standard that he had to go to work on a scooter to ‘beat the strike.’

We need an urgent, energetic and public campaign to defeat this bill. The Right to Strike campaign and others are working to build this, from the branches upwards. There have long been whispered conversations in the movement about what action we should take if legitimate trade unionism is pushed outside the law.

We may soon be facing that reality. We are the greatest democratic movement in the world; we should have no truck with anti-democratic laws.

Edd Mustill is on the Right to Strike campaign committee. Follow the campaign on Twitter

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.

8 Responses to “How the Trade Union Bill looks from the shop floor”

  1. Torybushhug

    This is a Tory ploy to ensure Corbyn wins the leadership and this Tory welcomes the prospect. Labour is irrelevant for a decade more anyway, it needs purging of its middle class hand wringer types first.

  2. stevep

    Absolutely spot on, Edd.
    The Thatcher administration enacted the most draconian anti-union laws in the western world in the 1980`s. New Labour could have repealed them but chose not to.
    I bang on about slavery in some of my comments about articles on this site, much to the confusion and derision of others, but that`s where we have come from in history and that`s where we`re heading back, slowly and insidiously.
    A person not born into wealth or land has to offer their labour to survive. There`s no choice.
    The wealthy man is in the position of accepting of refusing that offer, of giving someone a living or not.
    If the person seeking work accepts the wealthy man`s terms, he is at his beck and call, subject to his whims. Nothing he can do about it if he wants to live. Effectively a slave.
    When workers were concentrated in factories during the industrial revolution, they realised that if they acted collectively they had much greater power to bargain with the rich man. Despite many setbacks and much brutality from factory owners and the state, they slowly organised into trades unions and began to be in a position to bargain with the owners. They knew the most potent weapon they had, to survive, was to withdraw their labour until an agreement was reached.
    Fast forward to today and we still have the rich man wielding power as and when it suits. We still have Trades Unions, striving to get the best possible deal for and to protect their members.
    Trades unions that operate in a democratic manner, seeking to preserve a little democracy and dignity in the workplace.
    Small wonder that Cameron & co. want to reduce union power and activity to ineffectual levels. The Tories see democracy as a vote every five years and that`s it. The Unions see democracy as an ongoing process, necessary if people are to have a say in their lives.
    If the Tory anti-union legislation proposals go through, then mass democracy is effectively dead in the UK.
    For all Cameron`s bland assertions of “fairness”, there will be nothing of the sort. Working people will be slaves, at the beck and call of their masters.
    Labour must immediately refute this abhorrent legislation proposal, pledge to reverse it when in power, and give a voice back to the working people of this country.
    We must fight these undemocratic proposals at every opportunity using whatever media is appropriate.
    And Edd, if they do succeed in pushing them through and Britain enters a new dark age of oppression, you could do worse than study the life and works of Mahatma Gandhi. He knew how to deal with British oppression.

  3. Jacko

    The bottom line is this.

    If you want to stay working in a biscuit factory on low pay for the rest of your life, then moan about the system and put your faith in socialists to help you. If you want a decent career and income and a better life for you and your family, then adopt a positive mindset, learn new skills, get qualifications, work hard, and take control of your own destiny.

    But understand that socialists will oppose you doing this, because they don’t want you to better yourself. They want to keep you in the group of homogenized ‘workers’ because it perpetuates their narrative of ‘workers vs bosses’, ‘rich vs poor’, ‘greedy vs humble’.

    Make no mistake, they have this romantic, mythologized view of history that they’ve taken from books on the Tolpuddle Martyrs and Billy Bragg lyrics and they filter virtually all modern life through it. It’s the way you think when you’re seventeen years old, but most people eventually grow out of it because they become more nuanced in their thinking and recognize it as simplistic dogma. Unfortunately some people don’t.

  4. stevep

    No mistake at all. I know my history. Seems that you don`t, or you seek to deny others knowledge of it to suit whatever right-wing agenda you may have.
    I`ve lived it too. Many years on the shop floor in various fulfilling roles. Many years as a lay union official. So I do know what I`m talking about. Do you?
    I`ve been to Tolpuddle and experienced the history, it`s far worse than any mythologised version. Have you been?
    And yes, I`ve heard Billy Bragg songs. Very interesting (and amusing) they are too! Have you bothered to listen?
    I put my faith in helping in a small way to create a better society, based on fairness, decency and democracy. I think most people, if given balanced information, would want it too.
    Do you?

  5. Mick

    Ooo, the unions actually need a majority vote for strike action in future!

    No more block voting, secondary picketting or the closed shop? No rule by minority? Goodness, anyone would think freedom was being advocated as an ally of keeping shop floor rights!

  6. blarg1987

    You do actually realise it was the rise of trade unions, that allowed people to earn enough money, and have enough time of work so that they can actually better themselves?

    Before that it was a case that you had to work 18 hour days, no time to learn new skills and worrying about putting a roof over your families head and food on the table day by day.

  7. Keith M

    Downward slope to fascism. Anyone read the nazi labour laws? Interesting historical point from Lord rothermere pre war in which he praised the blackshirts.

  8. Patrick Nelson

    If you are working in a biscuit factory today it is deunionized, on shite shifts, with shite conditions and a near absence of rights or security. Thanks very much neoliberalism.

Leave a Reply