The government has introduced a repressive new trade union bill which has recently passed its second reading. The bill is the one of most vicious attacks on trade union rights for over 30 years. Even Conservative backbencher David Davis MP, compared it to General Franco’s dictatorship.
Perhaps one of the most obvious questions to pose against the bill is why is it being introduced when it appears to be totally unnecessary? It contains restrictions on picketing and doubles the amount of notice required for a strike. The measures appear to be extremely confrontational, yet Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, claims that the bill is “not a declaration of war”, but is necessary to guard against “militants” and stop “endless” threats of industrial action.
Javid’s assertions have no foundation. A 2015 report by the ONS revealed that strikes are at a historically low level. There were 647,000 working days lost to strikes in 2010-14, compared to 7,213,000 in 1980-89. It is hardly reasonable to claim that the threat of industrial action is “endless”.
Javid’s comment that the bill is necessary to guard against “militants” is also built on a fantasy. The word “militant” conjures up the caricature of a trade unionist whose sole aim is perpetual striking. However, the ONS figures reveal that in 2014, most disputes were settled without strike action- there were twice as many strike ballots as stoppages, and 63.9% of strikes lasted only one or two days. Hence, the “militant” trade unionist is virtually non-existent.
The bill also includes measures such as the monitoring of social media during strikes. If the government was to monitor our social media activity, we would see it as an invasion of privacy of almost Orwellian proportions. The same attitude should be adopted in relation to the surveillance of trade unions.
Trade unions embody the values of a democratic society and were integral to its development. It was groups like the Tolpuddle Martyrs, fighting for worker’s rights, who offered one of the first demonstrations of “people power” to hold a government to account. The Labour party, which was built by the trade unions, battled to extend the franchise. Their democratic heritage makes the suppression of trade unions even more shocking.
The right to strike is a fundamental element of a free society; it allows employees to prevent injustices in the workplace. Additionally, the act of withdrawing labour functions as a reminder of the value of the work each employee does, as the necessity of a service is recognised when it is withdrawn. The provision of the bill for employers to hire agency workers to replace strikers prevents the exhibition of the value of labour, and therefore, undermines the representation of workers in a democratic society.
The democratic power of trade unions acts as a counterbalance to the economic power. To push through such aggressive legislation is to offer further power to many of those who already possess sufficient wealth to leverage demands, over the needs of those with a lack of means.