The Trade Union Bill 2015 – another nail in the coffin of the right to strike

Government attacks on the right of workers to fight back against the profiteers in the face of declining living standards continue relentlessly with a Trade Union Bill first published on 15 July and currently undergoing the parliamentary ritual. So odious is it that even the staid Royal College of Midwives, which has balloted its members for action just once in England in the last 134 years, has identified it as “misguided and hypocritical“. It is in fact very clearly targeted.

The balloting process, already an obstacle course under the union-bashing laws pushed through by Thatcher and preserved by Labour governments, is now to become a deadly minefield which few if any can traverse unscathed. To start with, at least 50% of affected union members must cast a vote. In the case of workers in frontline public service jobs, a second hurdle awaits: to succeed, a ballot would need to be voted for by at least 40% of the electorate. (By way of comparison, the Tory ‘mandate’ to run Britain was delivered by just 22% of the British electorate). Workers caught in this net will not just be people like fire fighters and border guards, but will include NHS staff, teachers, transport workers and energy sector employees, including those engaged in nuclear decommissioning.

Should any ballot survive these first hurdles, the union then has just four months to act on it, before the ballot lapses and the whole rigmarole has to be started from scratch. In fact the real time limit will be lower than four months, since the union must also give 14 days’ notice before striking, long enough to draft in the scabs. Oh, and the union will now be obliged by law to accept the arrival of scabs without demur.

If in spite of all these precautions a strike actually happens, the Bill proposes that ‘unlawful’ picketing should no longer be registered as a civil offence but is now to be criminalised. In a nasty twist, the unions will be obliged by law to supervise their own picket lines on behalf of the police: a named official must be available at all times to the police to make sure the number of pickets never exceeds six and that nobody is rude to the scabs. Unions that fail to report all their doings to the satisfaction of the government’s ‘certificating officer’, including an annual audit on all protests and pickets, will face fines rising to £20,000. And on the principle of the condemned man supplying his own rope for the hanging, the said certificating officer is to have his wages paid for by a joint levy of unions and employers.

In addition to all these measures aimed at criminalising any meaningful exercise of the right to strike, the Bill also proposes to make it harder for unions to raise a political levy from its members. Instead of opting out if they don’t want to pay the levy, members will need to opt in if they do. Whilst most such levies simply funnel members’ subs straight into Labour’s coffers, some unions also spend the levy on other political causes and some unions (like RMT, PCS, FBU and the NUT) are not affiliated to Labour. So whilst for all practical purposes the immediate target of this clause of the Bill is Labour (for which we shed no tears), tampering with the right of organised labour to build up funds for political purposes constitutes a further attack on workers’ rights.

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