Unions are facing their biggest challenge ever

The Tories' latest move is an attack on unions' ability to organise


The Tories’ plan to undermine trade unions is continuing to gather momentum.

As I have noted in the Morning Star and Huffington Post, when MPs return from summer recess the Trade Union Bill will have its second reading.

The Bill contains a number of wide-ranging and aggressive measures to corrode the right to strike – making it nearly impossible to do so – and also includes plans to use agency workers to replace striking workers, hand significant powers to the Certification Officer and restrict trade unions’ facility time.

The Tories are even consulting on authoritarian measures to restrict peaceful picketing and protest.

On 6 August, we saw ministers extend to other public sector trade unions an attack they had already began against the PCS union. Many trade union members pay their union subscription fees through a system known as ‘check-off’, where subscriptions are deducted at source from members’ wages.

In the words of Mark Serwotka, PCS, general secretary:

“The system is long established and efficient and used by some of the UK’s largest companies”.

As many readers will know, the PCS has campaigned vocally against austerity. This is the context to the decision taken 18 months ago by the government to systematically begin to remove the operation of ‘check off’ and force the PCS union to plough resources into ensuring all its members transfer their subscriptions to direct debit. This move has been rightly characterised as union-busting.

Mark Serwotka has said that:

“This is the greatest challenge our union has ever faced. We are clearly being attacked because we continue to oppose this government’s ideologically driven and damaging spending cuts.”

Now the government has announced it will pursue this strategy across the public sector. The flurry of figures that have been bandied around about ‘check off’ costs – government departments have previously admitted to the PCS that it costs just 18p per member a year – clearly have no basis in reality.

But for the Labour Party and broader Labour movement the figures are less important than the real goal here – to break the trade unions in the public sector. This remains a stronghold, as approximately 58 per cent of trade union members work in the public sector.

TUC’s assistant general secretary Paul Nowak has also noted that:

“If payroll payment for union membership was outdated, it would not be popular with so many of the UK ‘s biggest private companies with positive union relations,

“Instead of going out of their way to poison industrial relations, the government should engage positively with workers and their representatives for the good of public services and the economy.”

Britain’s extremely complex laws around industrial action are already in breach of national standards, and moving from ‘check off’ to Direct Debit makes complying with these laws even harder for working people and their unions.

This is clearly an attack on unions’ ability to organise. Unions will in effect have to focus on finding the resources to re-sign hundreds of thousands of members, when they want to be defending their members’ jobs and campaigning against the 1 per cent pay cap.

We must stand clearly against this latest specific attack on unions, ready to defeat the Trade Union bill when it returns to parliament.

Diane Abbott is the Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington. She is currently running in the selection to be Labour’s London Mayoral candidate.

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