The government has put forward its most sinister plan yet for workers rights

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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12 Responses to “The government has put forward its most sinister plan yet for workers rights”

  1. stevep

    I wonder if this proposed legislation will apply to rich, landed groups like Farmers for action when they protest outside and blockade food producers and supermarkets? Thought not. The wealthy look after themselves, forming their own cartels and collectives outside of the rules and laws that apply to the rest of us.

    Incidentally, Thatcher had MI5 monitor and spy on trades union officials and activity back in the 1980`s as part of the mad bat`s “defeating the enemy within” campaign.
    Even they were aware of having gone too far.

    Britain and Europe are changing as we speak.

    The filthy far-right propaganda rags are losing their state-sponsored grip fast, The first Labour leader in decades who will speak for the people of Britain is about to be elected, The real human cost of the refugees fleeing their homelands is being understood and acted upon, the UK is getting restless for change even four months since the election.

    The Tories and their puppet masters aren’t going to have it as easy as they think, The EU in/out referendum is going to hit them badly, whichever way the vote goes. Their slender majority will naturally decline to the point where they will seek to cut deals with other parties. Best of luck.

    Despite the best efforts of the state propaganda machinery, Britain still wants it`s welfare state and NHS and secure jobs for those who work, still wants a sense of community and togetherness and above all, still values fairness.

    Collectivity is the only way people as a whole and especially workers, can have a genuine say in their lives.
    A collective voice to talk to and bargain with powerful wealthy interests and Corporations and indeed, governments who represent them.
    That`s why they seek to undermine collectivity, they want fascism, not democracy.

    Collectivity and the right to withdraw your labour is indeed a fundamental human right and any attempt by this government to tamper with that right should be seen as another step on the road to fascism and stoutly resisted.

    They push the good citizens of Britain too far at their political peril.

  2. Selohesra

    If unions had used their strike weapon a bit more sparingly – (how often do the railways, underground & teachers strike each year?) there might be more public sympathy for the unions. As it is strikes no longer seem a last resort and much of the public would like to see their wings clipped.

  3. Johnny

    How a bit more sympathy for under paid workers then? The fact is that if you not defend yourself you get walked all over. By losing wages do you think that people strike for fun or just to be awkward ? Look at what as happened to the people who are not in unions or stick up for themselves. They are working zero hours for a pittance

  4. Dave Stewart

    The number of work days lost to industrial action is at an all time low right now so your argument is simply wrong.

    See the ONS data series on page 6 of the document below.

  5. stevep

    Employers don`t use the weapons they have at their disposal sparingly – redundancy, dismissal, zero hours contracts, employing agency staff, reducing pensions, cutting sick pay etc. I could go on, but I fear it is the old maxim that is appropriate here: “There are none so blind than those who will not see”.

  6. wildejamey

    Yes, these are attacks on human rights. The problem is that even without them strikes have been largely ineffective since Thatcher because the majority of most particular workforces are freeloaders who not prepared to put solidarity with workers fighting for the interests of all before their own selfish interests in keeping their paychecks. Employers and governments have used divide and rule since the early 19th Century and before to break withdrawal of labour. Only when workers really feel the pain will a reactionary government’s policies be challenged. Meanwhile the main parties in our dysfunctional political system (including Labour) are just bourgeois catspaws.

  7. Chris

    Yes and there is a North London Local Authority spending over £2m per month after making numerous staff redundant at the same time. This has been going on for years but what are Unison doing about it

  8. Chris

    Sorry meant £2m spend on agency staff each month.

  9. blarg1987

    Applying one rule to one group and not all, is technically discrimination.

    This should be challenged in the courts, no doubt if we extend such legislation to private organisations they would repeal it overnight,

  10. stevep

    It`s all down to how much money they have got coming in versus how much going out.
    If they were able to tax as they saw fit and spend the money on public services and staff, there would not be an argument with the unions.
    This government doesn`t want local democracy ( or any form of democracy), so it progressively weakens the fiscal powers of local authorities by reducing funding.

  11. Harold

    The issue could be the employed people who work for minimum wage on zero hours feel for what ever reason they cannot organise and they have to put up with it. Even those who do earn more money and have better wages and conditions then find themselves either grateful or frightened to rase any issue. Many years ago I read an article in a right wing newspaper which claimed a pool of unemployed was required because it would keep wages down and challenge union influence. Even though this is at odds with traditional economic policy of maximising the work force potential and having the work force employed, but of course the bill for unemployment is picked up by the tax-payer and that is under attack now.

    The restrictions on Unions will continue while they are not challenged, I personally believe the way wages and well paid jobs have both dropped in number and value has been one of the results of weakening the Unions.

    There might be recourse to the European Courts but as everyone knows this is also under attack and one of the consequences of with drawing will the ability to defend employment rights. Remember there is quite a large group of people who would scrap all Heath and Safety rules tomorrow, I recall being told safety has no place in the work place and that safety cannot get in the way of completing the task.

    Unfortunately I think the electorate will allow these changes and perhaps even more draconian attacks on the rights of working people, we have a long way to go before the worm turns.

  12. Alison Richards

    I think this proposed legislation is just a very small part in the Tory grand scheme of things.
    Ultimately I believe the working class, workers, trade unionists, sick, disabled, vulnerable, large families etc are being punished for keeping the Tories out of government for so long.
    All the good that was achieved for society as a whole is being destroyed, by this prejudiced capitalist greedy self serving government

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