Trade unions are right to oppose this repressive bill. Here’s why.

Press reports of union 'militancy' swap cause and effect


Today’s papers are ablaze with tales of trade union militancy as the Trades Union Congress holds its annual meeting.

The Daily Mail’sUNIONS THREATEN STRIKE MAYHEM‘ is pretty representative. (See the Times and the Telegraph.)

The stories are part of a general portrayal of the Labour party – and the Left more generally  – as being dangerous, like dog let off the leash, following the election of Jeremy Corbyn.

But they also serve to influence public opinion on the government’s Trade Union Bill, being debated by MPs today, to make it seem like a necessary check on union excess.

The Mail didn’t even bother to hide its anti-union bias, blurring the distinction between news and editorial:

“The laws, which will require a 50 per cent turnout for any strike ballot to be legal, are designed to stop the reckless and damaging strikes that have hit schools, hospitals and transport links.”

So says their news story today.

In fact, we are living through a period of a historically low number of strikes.


And the union laws on the books are already among the most restrictive in Europe.

Consider then, in this context, these measures proposed by the government:

  • Requiring a 50 per cent turnout and 40 per cent support in union votes for strike action. Failure to achieve this would make a strike illegal.
  • Requiring strikers to designate a strike leader, who must wear an armband and give their details to police. Employees are obviously going to be worried about putting their neck out like this (who wants their details on a police database?). This is a clear attempt to intimidate people. Plus, by putting so much pressure on one person, this cuts at the root of the idea of collective action and solidarity.
  • Requiring employees tell police whether they will have signs, banners and a megaphone two weeks before the strike. So much for the element of surprise!
  • Requiring employees tell police what they plan to Tweet or post on social media during the strike, again with 14 days notice. Police pre-approval of Tweets, two weeks in advance? Not repressive at all, that.
  • Allow employers to bus in agency staff to replace striking workers, shrinking the effect of the strike on the employer, and robbing workers of their only real tool; their ability to refuse to work.

The ‘reforms’ have even been condemned by Amnesty International as a ‘major attack on civil liberties’.

Perhaps this is why some union leaders are calling for mass industrial action – not for the sake of it, but in response to a plain effort by this government to weaken their power, and the collective power of workers to organise and act together.

Meanwhile, the press give the government cover by portraying the unions as aggressors needing to be tamed, rather than simply aware of when their own existence is threatened.

Adam Barnett is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow MediaWatch on Twitter

DONATE to support MediaWatch here.

Sign up for our weekly email by clicking here.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.