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 Would they too be repealed under a Labour government?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.