6th March 2017
The press release issued by the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on 1st March 2017, announcing the implementation of the Trade Union Act, was breathtaking in its mendacity. The title alone was jaw dropping in claiming that “measures coming into force today will protect millions of people from the effects of undemocratic strike action.”
To quote further from the Department’s view of the world,
“The Act will ensure that if strikes do go ahead it will only be as a result of a clear democratic decision from union members thanks to the introduction of tougher ballot thresholds.
From today, fresh ballots will have to achieve at least a 50% turnout of eligible union members, with a majority voting in favour of strike action. In important public services – including in the health, education and transport sectors – an additional threshold of 40% of support from all eligible members must be met for action to be legal.”
The government determination of “important public services” includes:-
A&E, hospital high dependency units, intensive care, emergency hospital psychiatric services, emergency hospital obstetric and midwifery services
firefighters and fire control telephone operators
London bus workers
air traffic control workers
teachers and head teachers (except in private schools!)
Border Force staff
Notice of industrial action to the employer will double from 7 to 14 days, unless the employer agrees to 7 day’s notice. Ballot mandates will only last for 6 months, or 9 months if the employer agrees. After that point a new ballot will be required. The current situation where industrial action must begin within 4-8 weeks of the ballot but after which further action can be taken at any date as long as the dispute is live, will no longer apply. A picket supervisor must be appointed and must be identifiable and must provide contact details to the police if requested.
The Act also contains threats to “check off”, where employers deduct union subs directly through the payroll, and union facility time.
Public sector employers will be required to publish information about facility time, for example, the amount of time spent on paid time off for union duties etc. However, this will need further regulations before it is introduced. The Act also allows for future regulations that limit the amount and cost of facility time for a particular employer.
Similarly public sector employers will only be able to make check off deductions if the worker can pay their subscriptions by other means, such as direct debit, and the union pays towards the employers’ costs. Implementation of this will be delayed for 12 months.
All this amounts to a threat to the ability of unions to hold especially large scale national strikes covering 10,000s let alone 100,000 workers such as schools or the health service. It will allow employers more time to prepare in advance of strikes to reduce their impact.
The government claim that the Act is necessary in order to protect the public from ‘undemocratic’ practices in trade unions. The same thresholds however will not apply to elections to Parliament or the election of local councillors, where a simple majority of those voting, however low the turnout, is required to become an MP or local councillor.
For elections to the European Parliament where a system of proportional representation is applied, there will be no requirement to be elected by a 50% turnout of eligible voters, in order to protect the public from the possibility of the effects of your undemocratic practice.
Strike action can cause mayhem and disruption for the public, that is inevitable. Trade unions do not take strike action lightly however. It is always a last resort, when negotiations have failed and employers are unwilling to make any concessions. The press will always blame the workforce, whether it is junior doctors, airport staff or public sector workers. The Tories will always side with the employer, under the guise of siding with the public.
The Tory trade union legislation enacted since the 1980’s has had the single objective of constraining the rights of workers and strengthening the hand of the employer. The present Trade Union Act is no different. Opposition so far has not prevented the Act becoming law. With increasing pressure upon workers in a range of sectors, the Act may well be tested over the next couple of years. When it is, mobilising support for workers under attack from this vicious anti union legislation will be vital.