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A Mutiny Against Scrutiny: Tories, Trade Unions and Terrible Consequences For Workers

12/01/2016 08:19 GMT | Updated 11/01/2017 10:12 GMT

Monday, another Monday. It seemed another normal day at work for me. I didn't deviate a jot from my usual routine. I checked my Outlook, I arranged meetings, I prepared some documents. I chatted with my workmates, grabbed lunch. Yet, as I gathered my things and prepared to come home, the House of Lords prepared for a second reading of the Trade Union Bill that will erode my freedoms as a worker. It will crush my civic ties as a member of a union and an individual within a collective as well as the freedoms of my workmates. So despite its mundane and familiar rhythm, Monday was anything but a normal day. I, and 6.5 million others, may end this week one step closer to losing the rights that protect us, all as part of a symptom of the disease of a tyrannical Tory government that fears scrutiny far more than it fears injustice.

The Bill, sponsored by Sajid Javid and Baroness Neville-Rolfe, makes an excellent pretence of merely clarifying the relationship of employer and striking worker and championing transparency in employer-union relations. The Bill is certainly clear and transparent in motives. It defiantly and needlessly seeks to redress a perceived inefficiency in industrial relations by removing one of the last lines of defence from workers who have been sustainedly and unremittingly assaulted by the ineffective Tory austerity experiment.

Provisions of the Trade Union Bill include the introduction of a 50% threshold on union strike ballots before strike action can take place alongside a requirement that 40% of those entitled must vote in favour of striking from the essential public services which includes teachers, NHS workers, the fire service and transport workers. At the moment, a strike may proceed if the majority votes for action to take place. Contrary to the bile espoused by proponents of the Bill, no union proposes that strike action is a free for all and easily undertaken, the need for a mandate is well understood by an assortment of leaders, delegates and members. Nor does any worker in this insecure job market naturally undertake to go on strike lightly. The concept of a job for life for the British working public has been thoroughly skewered by the financial crisis, the growth of low-hours contracts, the stagnation of wages and decreases in the real value of pensions. 60% of the jobs created by the Coalition government have been in low-paid sectors of the economy and there are at least 1.4 million people employed on a zero-hours contract with many more potentially not reflected in the figures. Therefore, withdrawing labour is not an easy decision or a flippant tool to be waived, which this Bill does nothing to credit the strained working families of Britain in understanding and particularly not young workers who have had their housing and unemployment security nets torn from under their feet.

The Bill imposes a 14-day notice period on informing employers of impending strike action and also lifts the ban on recruiting agency staff to cover for staff members out on strike. This move has been criticised by unions and temping agencies alike. This not only removes the economic pressure put on employers by missing staff members but it opens up agency staff to vitriol and discomfort in their working environment. This shows the Government's intention to make even strike action that has been legitimated by meeting their draconian standards effectively toothless, despite being an assured right under the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights, by denying the full impact of the economic imperative to enter negotiations and make changes.

Excessive new powers granted to the regulating Certification Officer (CO) affords them the right of investigation of trade union activity without due cause or a requirement to meet an administrative standard for intrusion. Frances O'Grady, general secretary of the TUC, in an interview with Guardian suggested that the CO will become "investigator, judge and jury of trade union activity" whilst the unions themselves pick up the tab for their investigative activity, further crippling them financially even before the other resource-sapping terms of the Bill are applied.

Even where these measures have failed to tie the union into a bureaucratic knot worthy of Houdini's attention (and trade union secretaries have warned that these measures could cause splintering of groups and sidestepping of the traditional process, causing greater industrial unrest), the Trade Union Bill still continues on its cogent strategy of dividing and conquering the grassroots union members. As a grassroots level, protests will require an appointed "picket supervisors" expected to wear armbands showing that they have been given permission to go on strike. If the CO decides a trade union has breached these new rules the union can be fined up to £20,000 a time. Who exactly will volunteer to stand up as one of these supervisors and assume responsibility for the actions of the entire assembly? Most will simply shy away from this sort of spotlight and risk, thus impressing fear on the collective and creating a psychological barrier for those who wish to participate in their legally enshrined rights. This kind of needless sowing of discord and alarm into honest, hard-working people seems to betray the Conservative's lack of trust in the populous and rampant disdain for the civil rights of the many where they contradict the personal gain of the elite.

This ceaseless kowtowing to business goals barely masks the end goal; to siphon money away from ordinary families and more into the pockets of shareholders and profiteers as research by Wilkinson & Pickett (2014) shows how the decline of collective bargaining coverage over the last few decades has coincided with the dramatic decrease in the proportion of GDP that goes to workers' pay. Let's not forget, unionised workers in the private sector earn on average 39% more than their non-unionised colleagues with colleagues in the public sector earning on average 21% more than their non-unionised counterparts. This is particularly important to women who have disproportionately borne the brunt of George Osborne's ideological austerity agenda. Women make up 55% of trade union members and unionised women earn on average 30% more than non-unionised female workers which is immensely important given the women's increased likelihood of occupying lower paid sectors of the economy offering the fewest hours. This little known statistic goes towards dispelling the myth that those who benefit the most from union clout are the male and pale among us - especially since black workers are the most likely to be unionised.

The Tories have already restricted access to employment tribunals by ensuring that workers who began employment after the 6th April 2012 must have 2 years of continuous service before they can meet the qualification for unfair dismissal, regardless of the treatment they must suffer in the intervening period - and pay £250 for the privilege of just registering a case to be heard. Workers in more dangerous sectors of the economy have had legal aid access restricted for personal injury claims whilst workplace visits by health inspectors have been severely reduced by cuts, further endangering workers and placing hundreds of thousands at the mercy of bosses whose primary motivation is profit. This is merely a bureaucratic exercise in asserting the social contract is just another contract, like that of junior doctors and retiring women, to be torn up and misrepresented by a Conservative elite utterly detached from the concerns of ordinary working people.

This provision also overlooks that there may be many minority interests within a larger union. There are several generalist trade unions in Britain such as the GMB, for whom a single profession deciding to walk out may not spark a rush to the ballot box to meet that demanding target. If the recent success of the Picturehouse staff who collectively bargained for a living wage had been part of a much larger amorphous union, would millions of people across the country have necessarily stirred to their aid to meet that 50% target? Perhaps not. Yet was walking out and demonstrating their collective bargaining power the right thing to do? Absolutely. In fact, this provision almost certainly discourages voices within the trade union movement from engaging in democracy as by encouraging abstentions, dissenters can defeat motions by sheer lack of turnout. Any provision which dissuades collective voices from sharing their personal views is toxic to cohesion between workers as well as poisonous to the entire mission of the trade union movement to facilitate discussion in bargaining with employers.

The government could be said to be attempting to reach a fair compromise so that business is not unnecessarily disrupted by frequent and unpredictable strikes caused by a tiny minority. However, that becomes obviously false when the Trade Union Bill is examined, revealing provisions that ensure that unions are utterly hampered in the means by which they can legitimately ballot their members. There is to be no electronic or phone balloting for instance, despite both of those methods of communication being deemed secure enough to conduct our everyday banking and medical practice, an onerous and unreasonable double standard to apply and one which would almost certainly facilitate the higher turnout required by the Trade Union Bill. This particularly precludes greater engagement by young workers for whom these media are an ingrained part of their daily lives and who, after a vampiric austerity program which saw the loss of housing and employment protections, require the protection and advocacy of trade unions the most.

Finally, the changing of union financing to be an opt-in every five years rather than an opt-out model depletes the separate political fund which trade unions utilise for their campaigning activities which in turn informs and improves the advocacy they offer to their members. Nor is this the first time the Government has launched a cynical attack on those who seek to scrutinise and challenge their activities in the public eye and the courts. Chris Grayling's incursion on the right to judicial review sought to create a stranglehold by which charities and campaigning organisations were restricted from taking on cases on behalf of members and affected parties. By restricting lobbying, campaigning and legal activities of unions further, the Government is using finance to drown out dissent, rendering those capable of justifiable confrontation for the powerless of society as ineffectual and paralysed. That high-pitched spinning sound you can hear is the rotation of Aneurin Bevan, Clement Atlee, Tony Benn and other humanitarian extolers of the social contract in their graves.

Even more sinisterly authoritarian, this is a direct attack on the Labour Party who receives up to £6 million from affiliated unions, undermining Parliamentary Opposition in the donation boxes as well as through their earlier curtailing of "short money", the money specifically set aside in the Budget to facilitate the activities of the official Opposition. A less effective Opposition with less resource for fact-finding, canvassing, polling and lobbying is a disaster for democracy and especially for minority groups who find it difficult to get their issues heard in Parliament.

Many graduates and school-leavers beginning their first job may find their first action to be planning how to spend their first well-gotten gains. Others take the moment to enjoy the security that allows them to plan for a future, a house, a family. My first action as a young graduate was to join a union. It was more than a cynical grab for more money or security. It was a declaration that I was part of a collective that cared about fair and just treatment for everyone. Trade unions have historically done so much more than secure working conditions for members, they are the champions of LGBT rights, women's rights, the rights of the disabled and the young. Their aims are not at odds with modern business. The work of the major unions such as Unite, Unison, GMB amongst others includes research into improving worker productivity and streamlining business practices that benefit workers and employers. Their ultimate goal is striking a balance of cohesion between the aims of the employer and the needs of the worker. This Bill does little but smash the scales of fairness to pieces. The question will be, after the implementation of the Trade Union Bill, how can we even begin to put them back together again?