The Welsh Assembly has abolished most of the Tories' divisive Trade Union Act. But workers' rights in Wales aren't safe just yet.
This week will go down as a landmark for devolution – and how it can win for workers.
On Tuesday afternoon, Members of the National Assembly for Wales overwhelmingly supported and passed the Trade Union (Wales) Bill.
When crunch came, 38 out of 60 Assembly Members voted in favour of the Bill designed to scrap the worst of the UK government’s Trade Union Act – an Act condemned by everyone from human rights group Liberty to David Davis, the current Brexit secretary.
While the final version of the Bill was watered down after uproar over civil liberties, the final Act placed undemocratic thresholds on strike ballots, impeded how members could pay their membership dues, and put limits on how elected representatives undertook their roles.
And although industrial relations aren’t a devolved power, Westminster’s Act imposed big changes on how Welsh public services and their staff operated – from schools to hospitals, museums to parks.
The Welsh government warned the UK Parliament to think again while the restrictive bill was going through – but were ignored.
As the Welsh Government’s Local Government Secretary Mark Drakeford said:
“We should never have been in a position where we had to introduce a bill to reverse parts of a UK act. Time and again we warned the UK Government that this damaging and divisive legislation interfered with devolved policy and the powers held by the National Assembly for Wales.
“Even their own lawyers advised them that they would be on thin ground when it came to this area but they still decided to press ahead.”
While the Trade Union (Wales) Act can’t stop all the Tories’ union-busting – particularly with regards to the private sector – it is a major step in devolution, and a sign of the ever-increasing rift between Wales and the Westminster government.
What does it do?
The Trade Union (Wales) Bill – which is now awaiting Royal Assent – will disapply three core sections of the UK Government’s ‘divisive and pernicious’ Trade Union Act 2016 in relation to the devolved public sector.
It will scrap:
- The 40% ballot threshold for industrial action affecting important public services
- Powers to require the publication of information on facility time (the time union reps are permitted to spend on union duties while working) and to impose requirements on public sector employers in relation to facility time duties
- Restrictions on deduction of union subscriptions from wages by employers (“check-off”). This was arguably an attempt to slash union membership in public services – if you make it harder for members to pay their union dues, numbers are likely to fall.
According to the TUC, the Bill also makes clear the current law on hiring temporary/agency workers during industrial action – a union-busting tactic – meaning any threats from the UK Government to alter the current law in this area won’t apply to Wales.
In a statement to trade unionists, the Wales TUC said:
“This is a momentous achievement for the whole of the trade union movement in Wales, particularly for our social partnership approach of working with government and public sector employers in dealing with disagreements before they become disputes.
“The Bill is also a testament of the success of devolution in Wales, where we have a government that recognises the importance of working with trade unions in strengthening our public sector.”
Wales isn’t out of the woods when it comes to workers’ rights yet though.
As the Welsh Assembly site notes:
“The Bill is now in the four week period (19 July 2017 – 15 August 2017) during which, the Counsel General or the Attorney General may refer the question whether the Bill, or any provision of the Bill, would be within the Assembly’s legislative competence to the Supreme Court for decision (section 112 of the Government of Wales Act).
“Similarly, the Secretary of State for Wales may make an order prohibiting the Clerk of the Assembly from submitting the Bill for Royal Assent.”
Strong efforts will have to be made to hold off any Conservative attempts to block or reverse the Welsh Bill now.
Wales TUC General Secretary Martin Mansfield has already fired the warning shot, arguing: “Any underhanded attempts to interfere in how our devolved public services are run in Wales would be undemocratic and unconstitutional.”
But with only 13 AMs voting against and no abstentions, there will be a battle on the UK government’s hands if they want to override the Assembly, Welsh government, unions and public opinion.
Josiah Mortimer is Editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter.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.