The Conservatives’ authoritarian Trade Union bill will isolate workers in England as the easiest to mistreat not only in Europe but within the British Isles, the general secretary of Unite, Len McCluskey is warning today (Monday 23 November).
While the administrations in Scotland and Wales have stated that they will not accept the proposed laws, and growing opposition spans the police, human rights bodies and personnel managers, Unite says that the Tory government’s determination to attack trade unions will cause real harm to workers in England.
According to Len McCluskey the bill is the latest act from a government without a popular mandate acting to quash all voices of opposition, just as it sought to do with the `gagging act’ restricting the campaigning of charities and unions, and the recent rush to impose constituency boundary changes ahead of the 2020 general election even though millions have fallen off the voter roll.
Further, aspects of the bill, such as choking off funds to the official opposition and the use of agency labour to break strikes – a provision recently removed from Chilean law because it was a hangover from Pinochet’s repressive regime – are moves more befitting of autocratic regimes, not democracies like the UK.
Addressing Unite’s workplace representatives as they gather in Brighton to set the union’s industrial priorities, Len McCluskey said: “The Trade Union bill is one of several measures the government is pushing through, designed to break all opposition to their rule. What this legislation does show is the modern Tory party’s unease with vocal opposition and other basic attributes of democracy.
“It’s not as if David Cameron was returned to office on a tidal wave of public approval - his party won just 37 per cent of the votes cast, and only 24 per cent of the total electorate. And yet he is determined to use a majority of seats in the House of Commons to tilt the political playing field, way beyond the boundaries of decency, manipulating the electoral register, probably for the first time in our democracy’s history and launching a partisan attack on trade unions.
“In this country, we already have the most restrictive anti-trade union laws of any of our European neighbours. Strike action in the last decade has been at one of its lowest levels in any period in the history of this country.
“Vastly more working days are lost to work-related ill health or injury than to strike action – 27.3 million compared to 788,000 in 2014. Yet where is the government’s all-out attack on poor health and safety and conditions at work? Instead we have a 40 per cent hit to the funding of the Health and Safety Executive and the drastic fall in workplace inspections.
“Day-in day-out, unions tackle the scourge of dangerous working conditions – saving thousands, tens of thousands of lives. Instead of assisting us in doing this vital work, this government has put trade unions in the firing line. Their ideological opposition to trade unions will endanger working people.”
Turning to the government’s plans to use temporary workers to break strikes, Len McCluskey added: “The Tories’ planned use of agency labour to break strikes, illegal since the early 1970s, will destroy industrial and community relations.
“Just recently, the Chilean labour minister said that Chile would be removing striker replacement rules from their statute book because they were an “unfortunate legacy” of General Pinochet.
“Clearly that’s not a comparison that bothers our prime minister.
“Indeed, one respected Tory MP, David Davis, has described some of the provisions of the bill restricting free speech and free assembly as more appropriate to `Franco’s dictatorship’.
“The constraints on union political funds are shamefully partisan too, seeking to block trade union support for the official opposition party, while the secretive business funding of the Tories is left unchecked.
“Such appalling acts of state interference and intimidation, the sort of thing ministers denounce when practised by other authoritarian regimes, have no place here in Britain.
“The devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland, say that they want nothing to do with it, viewing this bill as an attack on the rights of the people they represent. English workers will not only be the worst protected workers in Europe; if this bill passes they will have fewer rights than workers in other parts of this United Kingdom.”
Len McCluskey repeated his call to the prime minister to take genuine action to address low turnouts in industrial action ballots by introducing secure workplace ballots: “There is one reason above all why turnouts can be low and that is the archaic system of balloting the law imposes on trade unions – the postal ballot.
“Today there are so many more modern, efficient and entirely secure ways to conduct secret ballots – online, by mobile and so on. Indeed, the Conservative party itself has just chosen its candidate for London mayor using those very methods.
“But the real key is to get balloting back to where it counts, to where it is relevant – the workplace. With workplace balloting, turnout would never be a problem again and a 50 per cent threshold would always be met.
“And there is a precedent. The Central Arbitration Commission, itself a government agency, already uses workplace balloting in votes on trade union recognition.
“If the government was to reject these modernising proposals, it would expose the real intent, which is an attack on the right to strike and turning trade unions into no more than advisory bodies unable to defend their members.
“Let me assure you - we will find a way to respond to all of these challenges. We will not be broken. We will not be marginalised. The Tories are not going to put this movement, this union, out of business.
“Inequality of power leads to greater inequality of wealth. So strengthening Unite and the trade union movement as a whole is not just a matter of private interest to our members - it’s a pathway to a better, healthier society.”
For further information please contact Pauline Doyle on 07976 832 861
- Unite is Britain and Ireland’s largest trade union with over 1.4 million members working across all sectors of the economy. The general secretary is Len McCluskey.