THE BLOG

If the Government Gets Away With the Trade Union Bill, Democracy and Liberty in the UK Will Be Seriously Damaged

16/07/2015 09:54 | Updated 15 July 2016

The government has one agenda with its strike laws - to shift the balance of power in the workplace. The proposals are an attack on civil liberties which are respected in any free, democratic society.

They even plan to change the law so agency workers can be brought in during strikes - a move that is likely to poison industrial relations and prolong disputes.

The claim that this crackdown on workers' rights is to protect the public from disruption caused by strikes is a cover for the government's true motive. Ministers are about to make huge cuts to public services - libraries, social care, children's centres - and they want to stop the workforce from protesting.

Even areas the government claims are protected, like health and education, are still suffering at the frontline from their ideological drive to shrink the state. A strike may cause inconvenience for one day, but losing a local children's centre, losing social care provision or getting stuck at the back of a growing NHS queue all cause far greater harm to British people.

In the last year, just 12.5 minutes of time per worker was lost to strikes in the UK. And the number of days lost to strikes in recent years is just a tenth of what it was during the 1980s. Strikes are so few and far between because trade unions do not like to strike. It is always the option of last resort. Former business secretary Vince Cable has said today that he found trade unions "very collaborative" and "reluctant to strike unless there is a genuine grievance".

Public sector union members are committed public servants, and they have always agreed to provide minimum levels of service to protect the public's safety and health. For example, in a strike last October, the Royal College of Midwives worked with hospitals to ensure services were still available to women going into labour or in need of urgent care. Other health unions agreed similar arrangements.

Trade unions very much want to improve participation in strike ballots, but the government is blocking us. Before the election, talks were taking place with former Business Secretary Vince Cable on fair and sensible plans to modernise strike ballots. But the new Conservative government has not resumed the discussions.

In today's world, important information comes to our smartphones, not our post boxes. Vince Cable agreed that trade unions should modernise balloting by letting members vote electronically. But the government is keeping an out-dated ban on unions using anything other than postal ballots. Any argument that e-balloting isn't safe and secure is a red herring, since most people do their banking and pay their bills online. If ministers were serious about improving turnout, would they really stand in the way of such a sensible change to keep up with the times?

The government's true agenda is also given away by another change to strike law that is being made by stealth, below the radar of the thresholds debate. They have announced that they will remove a law that prevents employers using agency workers to break legal strikes. It proves that they have no interest in the legitimacy of any strike, or in any reasonable worker grievances. They are simply determined to undermine the balance of power between workers and employers any which way they can.

They even plan to make it a criminal offense for more than six people to stand peacefully in a picket line. This is ridiculous. The police should be out there catching the real criminals, not wasting their time arresting people on peaceful union pickets.

If they get away with it, democracy and liberty in the UK will be seriously damaged. We will have the most draconian strike laws of any democracy in Western Europe.

Once the government has cleared the way to drive down pay and protections for unionised workers, a race to the bottom will follow for all other workers. And the Prime Minster has also confirmed he will be putting workers rights up for renegotiation with the EU. Our holidays, sick pay and maternity pay are all at risk of being negotiated away to please the hard-right Conservative on his back benches.

So beware the Conservatives' trap. They want to drive a wedge between workers, which will only lead to worse pay and conditions for every worker, in every sector. Please stand with the trade union movement to protect the balance of power that helps protect the pay and conditions of all workers. Let's get the government back to focussing on real problems, like the skills and infrastructure Britain needs for higher productivity, successful businesses and decent jobs.

Frances O'Grady is the general secretary of the TUC