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Trade Union Law – time for a change

At our November meeting, Gemma Short from the Right to Strike campaign came and spoke to the Branch about the current state of the Law and the Unions’ and Labour’s responses.

She started by looking at the one way history of the reduction of Trade Union rights, starting from the 1909 Osborne Judgement which first mandated “contracting out” of union political funds, through to Thatcher’s seemingly annual changes in the Law, which slowly introduced ballots, prohibited secondary picketing, constrained the use of political funds, restricted closed shops, restricted solidarity action, constrained disputes to workplace issues. Later in the administration, after the Miner’s strike, they increased the extent of individual balloting requiring a ballot on the political fund every 10 years, and then postal ballots on strike decisions, prohibited disciplinary action for members that scabbed, restricted facility time, criminalised unofficial action and mandated a 7 day waiting period.

The Blair and Brown governments failed to repeal a single one of these laws although it did introduce a number of new ones, which eased the administration of ballots and check-off subscriptions, introduced rights of representation in grievance procedures and introduced recognition ballots.

A summary of the laws introduced between 1979 & 2010 can be found in this Houses of Parliament Library research papers, linked to here.

In 2016, the Tory Government increased strike ballot thresholds i.e. mandated a turn out threshold, which of course does not exist in public elections and also made changes to public sector fees check offs.

Gemma finished by emphasising the need for an effective right to strike including effective picketing, the re-establishment of workplace ballots as opposed to postal ballots since the act of voting is collective not individual and the Unions and workers have a right to act speedily, especially in cases of victimisation, but also in pay disputes.

We have also lost the right to undertake political strikes, for instance on NHS funding and solidarity strikes which may be  on the same site or same employer and leads to the dreadful circumstances where ASLEF are working during the RMT dispute on Southern and where UCU pickets cannot ask for solidarity from their co-workers  but can from the students.

Labour’s 2017 Manifesto looks good, the repeal of recent Trade Union laws and the commitment that,

A Labour government will ensure Britain abides by the global Labour standards of the ILO conventions.

This is more radical then it seems since it was of course one of Thatcher’s boasts that the UK has the western world’s most restrictive Trade Union regulation and our laws break a lot of these standards. The effective right to organise is the workers defence against discrimination and exploitation and today’s Laws have a chilling effect on that right to organise and to take effective action.

It was suggested that we look at the Institute for Employment Rights and their Manifesto for Labour Law. http://www.ier.org.uk

In passing it was mentioned that one of the TUC’s demands during the passage of the 2016 Bill was that the mandatory ballots could be undertaken using IT systems. I took the opportunity to bang on about the care needed on the introduction of e-voting because the bulk of academic and expert opinion is very cautious at best. I also raised the question of judicial activism; it is a debate taking place in many campaigning organisations as the authoritarianism grows within the right. The GMB has successfully pursued Uber in the Courts, and both UNITE and Unison have had their own Court victories all to achieve rights that would once have been won through organisation and collective bargaining, but the tactic is one of weakness not strength and it does not build collective strength.

One of the members present raised the issue of the declining membership within the Unions and that we should not forget that the right to organise is global quoting the rise of Solidarnosc; I think we should be looking for more recent examples, in say Turkey and Iran.

The last word was Short’s, who spoke of the campaign for Migrants Rights being the current form of international solidarity, she noted that the current average age of Union reps is about 55, and that judicial activism is hard to organise around. She finished with the observation that “I can’t believe they’re doing that” is often the spark for organisation and action; anger is often justified and that a cooling off period is not neutral.

The movement needs a better goal than repeal of the 2016 act.

Posted: 17th March 2018

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