Trade unions are being held to tougher standards than businesses or government

It is hard to see any economic or moral rationale for the legislation


In the asymmetrical power relations between capital and labour, workers sometime have to resort to collective withdrawal of their labour to bring employers to the negotiating table. The Trade Union Billthat yesterday passed its second reading with 33 votes, threatens this right.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) recognises that the right to withdraw labour and go on strike is a fundamental right. Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights states that ‘everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests’.

The recent court case of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers v The United Kingdom stated that the right of strike is part of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The legislation is being hurried when workers’ share of the gross national product (GDP) is at its lowest. In 1976, a time when, with 13 million members, trade unions represented about 56 per cent of the work force, workers’ share of GDP was 65.1 per cent.

The 1980 and 1990s Thatcherite attacks weakened trade unions. Now with trade union membership reduced to about 6.5 million, that share has dropped to 50.4 per cent, the lowest ever recorded.  

The lack of purchasing power in the hands of ordinary people is the biggest cause of austerity. The biggest beneficiaries from this have been corporations with average profits of 12 per cent, and a pay bonanza for their executives. Many working people have been forced to use food banks and owning a home has become a distant dream. Yet the government is committed to further weakening of the collective rights of workers.

The Trade Union Bill continues the Thatcherite tradition of weakening workers’ right to withdraw labour whilst doing nothing to constrain the employers’ right to withdraw capital and relocate production. The Bill requires a 50 per cent turnout for industrial action ballots, and a support from at least 40 per cent of all those eligible to do so where the industrial action involves ‘important public services’.

The government defends such requirements by saying that they bring democratic legitimacy. By this argument the Conservative government itself has no legitimacy. In the 2015 general election, the Conservative Party received 37 per cent of votes in a 66 per cent turnout. This amounts to a mandate from only 22 per cent of the total electorate.

The Bill does not permit unions to conduct electronic ballots. Employers can break strikes by using agency staff. The period of notice of a strike to be given to an employer will be increased from 7 to 14 day. The Bill bans automatic opt-ins to political donations from trade union subscription fees. There will be restrictions on the use of social media for trade unions taking industrial action. Article 9 of the Bill will require trade unions to pride the names of picketers to the police.

The government claims that higher thresholds and other restrictions are needed because the general public is affected by industrial action. Actually, the general public is affected by corporate practices too.

Companies can decimate the lives of workers, their families and local communities by unilateral closure or relocation of productive facilities. If the government was being even-handed then it would have required that relocation or withdrawal of capital be preceded by a ballot of shareholders, employees and other stakeholders. Of course, such industrial democracy is not on the government’s agenda.

The Labour party has traditionally relied on trade unions and their members for financial support and the Bill now seeks to strangle that source of finance. In contrast, there are no restrictions on corporate funding of political parties though this is subject to a shareholder resolution at annual general meetings. However, individual shareholders cannot opt out of such donations even if they disagree with the policies of the recipient party.

An alternative explanation for the Bill is provided by Sir Vince Cable, business secretary in the 2010-2015 government. He states that the government has launched a ‘vindictive, counterproductive and ideologically driven’ attack on trade unions. A senior Conservative legislator has referred to the Bill as a draconian dictatorship. It is hard to see any economic or moral rationale for the legislation. It seems to be designed to appease corporations who have heavily financed the Conservative Party.

Prem Sikka is Professor of accounting at the University of Essex

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20 Responses to “Trade unions are being held to tougher standards than businesses or government”

  1. stevep

    The Tories represent the landed, the wealthy, business, corporations, the city etc.

    Their aim is to provide ideal conditions to maximise profit for whatever ventures the above mentioned engage in.

    The un-Landed and Un-wealthy need to work for them to secure a living. The only way they can hope to have a fairly stable life at work or even improve their living standards is to be part of a collective, such as a Trade Union, who will bargain on behalf of them and expect solidarity and commitment in return.

    The Tories do not remotely represent workers, so they see any form of collectivity as a threat to wealthy interests, and seek and have always sought, to undermine it.

    That is why the current anti-Union legislation is on the table, it is to finish off collectivity for good and reduce the vast majority of the working citizens of the UK to worker drones, to be hired and fired and treated how their masters see fit, with impunity.

    It is not merely “tidying up” existing legistation, as the Tories, their press sycophants and their apologists suggest, It is a particularly vile piece of legislation designed to kill off Trades Unions.

    It should be seen for what it is, exposed, contested and resisted by everyone who works for a living.
    Failure to do so will see Britain descend into Fascism.

  2. Selohesra

    The comparison to electing MPs is absurd. I would hope everyone could agree that the norm should be that constituencies are represented & that workers are at work. There should be tougher electoral hurdles to deviate from either of those positions.

  3. Jacko

    Why do you persist with the comparison with a general election?

    General elections are not binary Yes or No choices like strike ballots. There are several choices. So it’s hardly surprising that the winner never gets near 50%. Secondly, union members have chosen to join a union and pay do so. One would expect their level of involvement and interest to be considerably higher than that of the wider electorate, many of whom have no interest in politics at all. So it’s an utterly meaningless comparison. As a professor of accounting you must be aware of these basic facts.

    I’d also say this. If the strike action is so just, so principled and so much in the members’ interests -protecting jobs, pay and conditions, standing up for the little man against oppressive and exploitative bosses, I would expect that members would be falling over themselves to support it. So if you can’t even get 20% of your members out to vote for it, what does that tell you? Clearly it can’t be as great a crusade as you think it is.

  4. Prem Sikka

    Please read the article. The 2015 general election winner got 22% of the total possible vote. The govt is imposing a 80% requirement for trade union workers in the public sector. So do we have a new principle of voting? Where will it be applied? Government will not permit unions to use electronic ballots, something that is common in many other sectors. The nasty idea is to push up the costs of balloting.

    You said, “members have chosen to join a union and pay do so. One would expect their level of involvement and interest to be considerably higher than that of the wider electorate”. The same can also be said of shareholders. But in many companies less than 10% of shareholders vote. Companies use a delegated proxy voting system (illegal for trade unions, local, general, mayoral, EU elections) that enables directors to cast thousands of votes. Companies affect our lives too, but no attempt to democratise these funders of the Conservative Party. Why tis silence on corporate democracy?
    I am sure you and many others are beneficiaries of a decent wage, sick pay, holiday pay, health and safety laws, equal pay, gender and racial equality, the NHS, free schools and much more. These things did not happen by magic or were given on a plate by benevolent corporations. A lot of people, including trade unions, struggled to achieve this.

  5. UKLawman

    An excellent Article because succinctly it summarises the content of the Bill, and then draws comparisons with comparable organizations.

    Many people are against strikes because they seem to be conducted with negativity: as though the objective is to inconvenience the public and blackmail employers. Likewise the violence of some pickets (think “scabs”) is off putting.

    The solution to this is that Union leaders should show better communication skills and stop the ‘hate’ comments. Employers and HMG are smarter at public relations, even though their measures may be less meritorious.

    However, none of that is addressed by this Bill, and indeed cannot be addressed by legislation. The Bill does seem to be a direct political measure to restrain employees from arguing their cause. It gives Mr Corbyn’s new opposition an opportunity to seem reasonable and supportive of the large majority of us the public: because most of us are employees or reliant on employees.

  6. Dave Stewart

    Could you provide evidence of violent pickets in the last decade or two? i.e. after the miners strike. I’ll be shocked if you find more than a couple of isolated incidents all of which are easily dealt with using existing laws.

    The reason TU rhetoric is generally strong is because this is our livelihoods we are fighting for. Also we have to convince people that it is worth losing pay, risking their jobs and generally having a shit time of it. Hence we use emotive rhetoric just like politicians do to convince people of their stances.

    Strikes by their necessity are designed to disrupt the employer. If the employer happens to provide a public facing service then the strike will inevitably disrupt the public. This is how pressure is applied to the employer. The idea that a strike (or any protest for that matter) shouldn’t be disruptive is ridiculous. You will simply be ignored if you are not causing any disruption to the employers,

    The way the press reports on strikes is one of the major problems I feel. It is never presented as the last resort action to force the employer to come to the table as is almost always the case. If employers were prepared to negotiate openly and honestly most strikes would not happen but always it is blamed on the unions and never the employers.

  7. stevep

    Absolutely correct. Well said.

  8. UKLawman

    Dave: Thank you for your reply. All you say is reasonable. Indeed offhand I cannot think of hot confrontations since the 1980s.

    My point, of course, was the perception of some people, even if that is not founded in fact. For example, the TV broadcasts film from 30 to 40 year old confrontations, and some newspapers raise them.

    An analogy is the hysteria from some quarters over Mr Corbyn’s policies. Apart from the fact that the policies are in rough principle only, I doubt that many have read what he said in his ‘manifesto’ paper.

    We must continue to argue with reasoned views; and I think we have good arguments in the context of this Bill. I still believe that some TU leaders, not all, could do better in this regard.

  9. steroflex

    This is one of the most unequal societies we have lived in since the 1750s. Some people are stinking rich, while others (immigrants among them) are dirt poor.
    Played properly, something could be done.
    The Unions, however, have not done that. They are Luddite (Arthur Scargill) and they are representing a lot of people who are just about to be replaced by computers. They face decimation.
    Fracking – an industry which could bring untold wealth – has been more or less banned. Coal fired power stations have been decommissioned. Railways are in a chaotic state. London housing? Oh dear. The industrial north of England? Over to you George!
    Just striking is not going to do anything. We need sensible co-operation and some forward looking people to be in charge – people who are not just fat cats.

  10. steroflex

    Bringing the whole of London to a halt, or refusing to teach children are both very serious acts, and they affect an awful lot of innocent people.
    Fiddling with the figures may be good accounting. It will not be popular with commuters, parents or employers.

  11. Eoireitum

    Could we address, thru legislation, the mass of non-unionised workers – the majority of us. Unionisation is important – don’t get me wrong but can we be an inclusive party that recognises the realities.

  12. stevep

    Fracking could bring untold wealth – but to who? If private companies are allowed to do it, they will reap the benefit. If they are foreign companies, then the the benefit goes elsewhere.
    O.K. there will be jobs created and ancillary benefits, but what part does the taxpayer play in the form of grants and subsidies? How will we benefit?

    What happened to North sea oil should be a warning. The oil bounty that should have gone to the UK in the `80s to better all our lives was squandered paying for the benefits of 3,000,000+ unemployed and tax cuts for the wealthy as part of the pursuit of Tory far-right dogma.
    Norway, in contrast, used their oil revenue to build a better society. It still owns 70% of it.

    Regarding Luddites, they had a point. Who benefits from technological progress? The skilled? Not if they can be replaced with technology. Some might reskill, but how far do you take reskilling?
    The unskilled? They will be on their own as technology largely makes them redundant and a reduced welfare state propels them into penury.

    Mass protests and civil disobedience as a result? – This is where the raft of anti-terror legislation and anti-union legislation comes in.
    The Legislation, which curtails civil liberties, has been sold to us to prevent the possibility of a terrorist attack, but also serves to protect the wealthy from the masses when the penny drops they`ve been hoodwinked.

    Who are the terrorists? The odd extremist or group of extremists? We managed pretty well for 30 years under threat from an IRA mainline bombing campaign without such legislation.
    Or are the real terrorists governments who have worsened the living standards of the majority of us.
    Or the banks, who effectively created more havoc to the world`s economic system than any terrorist.

    Is the definition of a terrorist some one who deliberately puts the lives of a person or persons at risk of death or injury?
    If so, does a pensioner starving to death in a cold unheated room as a result of government welfare cuts carry the same weight as someone killed with a bullet or bomb?

    Everything governments have done or legislated for in the last 36 years has been for the benefit of the wealthy few.
    It`s time Britain woke up to that fact and vow to change things via democratic means while they still can.

  13. blarg1987

    Closing down the towns major employer to move it off shore just for a few extra quid is going to affect an awful lot of innocent people as well as not be popular.

  14. Mike Stallard

    On the radio the other day, 90+ year old Dennis Healey said it was North Sea oil which had saved the Labour government. The industrial North of England and Scotland is what brought us a lot of prosperity too. And, yes, there was the occasional train crash, the occasional mine collapse and lots and lots of people died early from lung problems caused by the filthy air.
    Now we “debate” instead – and grow poorer by the day.
    But – hey! It’s not our fault! It’s the bankers! Or the politicians! Or the EU! Or Mrs Thatcher!

  15. stevep

    Not sure what you are trying to say, Mike. If you are saying the industrial revolution and the industries of the north brought prosperity, it did – to a relative handful of wealthy landowners, industrialists and merchants. The vast majority of people experienced child labour, poor working conditions, long hours, dire living conditions and the prospect of the workhouse if they went under.

    Most people didn`t reap any benefit from industrialisation until they collectivised and formed Trades Unions to fight for a better quality of life.

    Collectivisation was opposed bitterly by the establishment using legislation, hired thugs, the police and the military to attempt to keep people in their place.
    The living standards we enjoy today reflect the sacrifices our forebears chose to make to try to create a better, fairer, more equal society.

    That ethos has been largely undone by Conservative governments dedicated to turning the clock back.

    This is why we must oppose the current anti-union legislation going through parliament and fight to elect a government which will support ordinary people and put fairness, equality and decency at the top of the agenda.

  16. stevep

    Reckless bankers crashing world economies affected more innocent people than strikes ever will and the innocent are still paying for it, yet the Right have attempted to spin their way out of that inconvenient fact since 2008.
    Spare us the guff.

  17. steroflex

    And then there is the debt of £1.5 TRILLION.
    To keep the interest rates down so we have a hope of paying the interest on it and to stop the banks holding piles of useless bonds instead of derivatives, we have to keep the borrowing rates at zero.
    I know people who would love to invest in industry. They have to buy up all those houses instead…

  18. blarg1987

    Considering industry gets takes breaks in the billions of pounds each year.
    We could also do debt consolidation and renegotiate thing like PFI to get the debt down.

  19. Tom

    Surely, there’s a very simple step you could take – join a union?

  20. Eoireitum

    Yes. That would be a way! But I’ve worked for 25years in a service sector that simply doesn’t get it…at all levels.

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