The Trade Union Bill is a radically destructive piece of legislation, and should complete its progress through parliament this week. Its journey took a dramatic twist recently when the House of Lords surprisingly become a last bastion of workers' rights, with the Lords voting through some amendments which will curtail the proposed changes. Unfortunately, though, it's a case of rearranging lifeboats on the Titanic. The main body of this Bill will be a devastating blow to the bargaining power of workers, and the ability of trade unions to enforce those powers.
The Lords' amendments centred on processes: blocking the abolishment of check-off in the public sector (the process of paying union dues through your wages) and restrictions on opt-out political levies by trade unions (unsurprising that the Lords opposed this, given the number of Labour cronies in there and the fact that the party stands to lose up to £8 million per year from the changes).
They also gave firm opposition to the proposals that Government ministers will be able to interfere if they think public sector workers are allowed too much time to pursue trade union activities, for which I am eternally grateful. As the SNP's spokesperson for civil liberties, I am aghast at the thought of all public sector organisations being subject to the Tories' idea of what is enough union time. I suspect that this full-scale assault on workers' rights will not be enough for some of those on the Government benches and they have no intention of stopping until they are the masters of their own wee constituency poor houses.
These amendments are no real buffer to the main content of the bill, even if we assume they are not overturned in the House of Commons on Wednesday. It will introduce a 50% turnout requirement for industrial action ballots, and a further 40% 'Yes' vote for public sector workers. With these sorts of requirements placed on unions it'd be unlikely that action such as this week's junior doctors' strike would be able to happen at all. The bill also puts onerous pressure on trade unions to report large amounts of information to employers, or risk losing their legal protections.
Let's be clear on this - if a trade union loses its legal protections, its workers lose their legal protections. If a worker takes part in a strike and all of these issues of minutiae are not fulfilled by their trade union, they are liable to be dismissed. I have no doubt in my mind that the entire driving force behind this bill is to make it so complicated and so risky to threaten industrial action that people will simply not dare chance it. They will not dare stand up for their rights.
Trade Union membership is positively associated with higher wages, better working conditions, and more prosperous economies. Civil liberties and human rights are threatened by this bill, and when we stop to consider for a second that there might not even be any real economic benefit to treating workers like this, what conclusion can we arrive at?
Professor Keith Ewing of Kings College London describes the bill as the Government enforcing 'a living death by a thousand cuts' to trade unions, only stopping short of banning them altogether. I'd be inclined to agree with him. When we look at the backdrop to this soon-to-be act of parliament, in a country with no written constitution, and an unelected chamber of Government, it is a particularly cynical move to threaten the politicised voices of the working class. Our only real protection from this regressive bill is the UK's commitment to human rights, which is becoming gradually weaker and may soon be threatened with extinction altogether, with the proposed scrapping of the Human Rights Act.
Make no mistake, this bill presents the threat of an ideological war, the effects of which will be felt for generations, and we must hold this Government to account while we still can.