Anyone interested in surveillance issues should be deeply worried by the latest proposal
The right to strike is a fundamental human right, recognised across the democratic world. It has played a crucial role in helping workers – whether they are union members or not – to secure better conditions and livelihoods, both for themselves and their families.
While many countries rightly celebrate human rights and access to justice, our government is busy working on reforms aimed at shutting down dissent and weakening people’s rights at work. We already have some of the strictest laws on strikes in the industrialised world.
The new proposals in the Trade Union Bill are designed to make it more difficult for unions to function effectively and do what they do best – helping people at work. They intend to make it much harder for ordinary women and men to take strike action.
The proposals intend to turn every abstention in an industrial action ballot into a vote against strike action – skewing the legitimate results. They allow employers to install agency staff during a strike to provide cover in an attempt to make any action ineffective, introduce new excessive scrutiny and sanctions on picketing, and add new disclosure and surveillance powers for all industrial dispute-related activity. All of this is designed to frustrate a workplace voice being heard.
One example of the disproportionate new measures proposed is the excessive new reporting requirements on campaign activity. The proposals require unions to publish picket and protest plans 14 days prior to any action. This must include when and where the union is holding a picket or protest, how many people will be involved, whether there is a plan to use loudspeakers or banners, and alarmingly, what the likely content of any websites or blogs might be.
The plan may also have to include details of when and how unions plan to use wider social media during this time. No other organisation is asked to provide details of social media campaign activity in advance. Such invasive additional scrutiny has no justification.
This is clearly excessive monitoring of legitimate campaigning activity, especially when what might count as official union communication is considered. It’s not clear, for example, whether someone whose Twitter profile recognises their voluntary union role would be seen as running a personal or an organisational account.
It would be entirely disproportionate for unions to face an injunction preventing a picket, or claiming damages simply because they failed to list a Twitter account used by a union member. These measures are simply designed to hinder legitimate union activity including campaigning.
Proposed new requirements on pickets are perhaps the most sinister plans, with picket supervisors (and potentially all members of a picket) having to identify themselves by name, wear an arm-band, and obtain a letter of authorisation that they must have on them at all times during the picket, ready to show on demand to ‘anyone who reasonably asks to see it’.
In light of recent blacklisting and illegal surveillance of trade union activities this should be hugely concerning to anyone interested in civil liberties issues.
It is already absurd that, under these proposals, a union, if challenged on any of the above, could be fined £20,000 or even lose its statutory immunity from liability simply because someone forgets to wear an armband. Especially worrying is the fact that a picket supervisor has to show paperwork that identifies them to any passerby who asks. This could encourage security firms working for the employer or anti-union group to intimidate the supervisor.
These proposals have no rational justification, and have already attracted censure from the Regulatory Policy Committee – an independent body appointed by the government which verifies the costs and savings of proposed laws to businesses and civil society.
The Bill is all about making life tough for unions and the working people they represent just for the hell of it and because ministers think they can get away with it. It is an attack on the civil liberties and human rights of all union members. No other civil society organisation in the UK will be obliged to comply with such requirements.
Just the ability to picket and protest, taken on its own, is a fundamental human right that is safeguarded by ILO Convention 87 (Article 3), the European Social Charter (Article 6 (4)) and the European Convention on Human Rights (Articles 10, 11 and 14).
It will not have passed the government by that similar proposals in Turkey were successfully challenged in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), which declared the law incompatible with the country’s human rights obligations.
The ECtHR may have a mandate to intervene against these proposals if a case comes before it. It is no coincidence that this government has developed what looks like a deliberate and calculated plan to assault workers’ rights, and undermine the court at the same time.
Dave Prentis is general secretary of UNISON
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