The Trade Union Bill published on 15 July contains a fresh assault on collective trade union rights. Alarmingly, this follows a series of weakening measures designed to limit individual employment rights under the previous ConDem Coalition government. These new proposals are wide ranging attacks on our trade unions which with six million working people as members are the largest democratic organisations in British civil society. We must be alert to this and oppose these attacks every step of the way.
This fresh pummelling is something working people in Britain can ill-afford. We are already amongst the least protected from dismissal among OECD countries and we currently have such restrictive trade union laws that the government is regularly found in breach of International Labour Organisation Conventions.
Central amongst the Government's proposals are plans to further restrict the right of working people to strike. They would do this by saying an industrial action ballot would have to have a 50% turnout for any action to be legal. Additionally in health, education, fire, transport, border security and nuclear de-commissioning, 40% of all eligible voters would be required to vote in favour of any action for it to take place. The impact is to effectively turn abstentions and those not voting into 'No' votes, something of a brazen suggestion from a Tory Government brought to power under an electoral system which has seen a 'majority' government formed with the votes of just one in four of all eligible voters.
The measures in the Bill additionally include allowing employers to bring in agency workers to replace those on strike, a measure even Thatcher didn't bring in. At the moment a trade union has to ballot all of its members every ten years on whether to retain a political fund, this fund not only pays affiliation fees to the Labour party but also other, broader political campaigning. Once the collective decision has been made by members to have a political fund a very small amount of every members' subscriptions are paid into the political fund. Thatcher introduced the ability for individuals to opt out of this arrangement. Now, the latest proposals from Thatcher's children are that trade unions would have to ask members individually to 'opt in' to the political fund. This is a blatant attempt to starve trade unions of the resources to take up political campaigning in defence of their members, and of course to restrict their democratic affiliation to the Labour Party.
Over five years in government the Tories have overseen an increase in insecure, precarious work typified by zero and short hours contracts, alongside annual falls in real wages. The Budget last week outlined cruel cuts to working age benefits - the scale of which we have not seen before. This will increase poverty. Eroding employment and trade union rights risks leaving people with no alternative but to accept lower paid work with worse terms and conditions.
All of this is leading to growing opposition to the austerity agenda and the government seems determined to do as much as it can to weaken people's ability to organise such opposition.
This trend of restricting our right to campaign and organise accelerates developments of recent years. For example, under the coalition government, industrial action by the Public and Commercial Services union in resisting severe cuts to civil service staffing was met with the Government launching a direct union busting attack on their organisation, ending the practice of 'check off' where trade union member subscriptions are deducted from their wages.
Alongside this, the charities and NGOs that had been campaigning against the policies of the Coalition found themselves on the receiving end of what became widely known as the 'Gagging Act.'
It is within this broader context that the latest Trade Union Bill must be seen. It is an attempt to further disempower working people and their organisations, seeking to give people no power to stand up for their (shrunken) rights.
On this current bearing, the coming years will see ever more people suffer from the race to the bottom in working conditions. Ever more people will be vulnerable to being exploited at work, including longer hours, lower pay and less employment rights. It is no coincidence that unions - the very vehicles that could organise and protect these working people - are now to be strangled by ever tighter reactionary laws.
The Labour party was created as the parliamentary voice of the labour movement and it is our duty to stand up for the rights and living standards of working people. Alongside campaigning to end austerity, opposing and defeating this latest attack on the unions must now be a touchstone issue for us all.
Diane Abbott is the Labour MP for Hackney North