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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