With the Trade Union Bill having passed third reading in the House of Commons on Tuesday, it is clear that the trade union movement now needs to up-the ante in opposing this. At the TUC Congress in September, unions agreed to a co-ordinated day of action and protest. Faced with an attempt to cripple the union movement in this country our members now expect us to act on this.
While much of the focus has been on ballot thresholds, the Bill itself will impose significant restrictions on union activities across the board. On industrial action it provides a four month time limit in which action must be taken, doubles the notice period for action that must be given to employers and adds to the information unions must put on a ballot paper, giving employers new technical grounds to prevent strikes taking place at all. Alongside this the government wants to allow employers to use agency-workers as strike-breakers if a strike does go ahead.
These changes mean a huge shift in the balance of power away from workers when a dispute takes place. But take a look at the economy and the country today. Six million people earn less than the living wage. 750,000 people are on zero hours contracts. And the big innovations we are seeing in low-paying sectors are contracts that are designed to avoid giving staff annual leave, sick pay or pensions. When industrial action is at a historic low, no-one can reasonably say that the problem in the labour market is trade unions running out of control.
In fact, with every issue it covers, it is difficult to see the Bill as anything other than a political attack on the union movement. On 'check-off', for example, the Bill will allow the government to unilaterally cancel the arrangements - put in place by agreement - between unions and public sector employers, for union members' subscriptions to be deducted from payroll. While the government claims that it wants to cut costs for the taxpayer, in truth this is simply an attempt to put public sector unions out of business: across the whole Department for Communities and Local Government the annual cost of check-off is just £320 a year.
Similarly, the changes to political funding appear to be little more than a move to bankrupt the Labour Party. Around half of Labour's funding comes from trade unions and this is subject to tight controls unions have to comply with (under the existing trade union laws) to make this accountable to their membership. Yet the Bill will now give unions a window of just three months to get each member to opt back in to paying a 'political levy' next year (and to repeat this every five years thereafter). With five million individuals being affected by this across the union movement, this one change will dramatically weaken opposition to the Conservative Party at a stroke.
What is striking about the progress of the Bill through Parliament is the inability of the government to give any coherent justification for it - the government's own policy committee said its impact assessments are 'not fit for purpose' and even a Conservative MP compared it to something suited to Spain under Franco. Nothing expressed the weakness of the government's arguments better than the empty green benches on the Conservative side of the House of Commons yesterday afternoon.
When the Tories spent their conference calling themselves the party of working people much of the media thought this was clever positioning. But this line, like the forgotten claim that 'we're all in this together', relies on the rest of us being blind to what is really going on. Whether it is with tax credits or the Trade Union Bill, the government has no claim to be the voice of working people - it is time for the union movement to show that it does.
Dave Ward is the general secretary of the Communication Workers Union (CWU)