Trade Union Act 2016
TRADE UNION ACT: 2016
The Queen’s Speech promised to “deliver security for working people, to increase life chances for the most disadvantaged”. Yet this could not have been further from reality, when the government’s legislative programme represents carrying forward the offensive against the whole working class and people, increasing the precariousness of their existence and driving the vulnerable further into poverty. It is a fundamental right of the working class to organise within this situation. This is a right which cannot be negotiated away. Yet the government is hell-bent on attempting to deprive them of this right.
As a Bill, the Trade Union Act 2016i was one of the most vigorously opposed, as it attempts to block the ability of the workers’ movement to itself block the anti-social offensive and defend the rights of all. As well as opposition coming from the organised working class movement, the Bill was opposed within Parliament, with certain amendments from the House of Lords being accepted by the government. These included the attempt to stop trade unions collecting their union dues via the employers’ pay system and other measures, including those to regulate information from social media of those taking part in pickets which were also largely unenforceable. However, the anti-worker thrust of the Trade Union Act 2016, alongside previous anti-trade union laws, still remains largely untouched. It is a malicious Act against the right to organise and the freedom of association, and must be repealed.
Provisions of the Trade Union Act
Intact in the Act are major additions to the previous anti-trade union legislation restricting the legality of strike action in Britain. In sections 2 and 3, the Act specifies a 50% turn-out of all the members eligible to vote in a ballot of a trade union for a strike to be lawful. In addition, for trade unions “normally engaged in the provision of important public services”, the Act specifies that for a strike to be lawful 40% of all eligible members must vote “Yes” rather than a simple majority of those that return the ballot. Even a major attempt by the trade unions to amend the law so that they can e-ballot their members instead of having to use the very expensive postal ballots to increase the turnout was sidestepped and is to be referred to an “independent review”, which will only be “commissioned within six months”. As other commentators have pointed out, the “flagship” aspect and main purpose of this Act remains in place. Carolyn Jones, Assistant Secretary of the Campaign For Trade Union Freedom, pointed out: “The imposition of a 50 per cent turnout and an additional 40 per cent support requirement for workers in health, education, fire response, transport and border security, make it near impossible for those workers currently leading the resistance against privatisation and cuts to take industrial action.”ii
Other major additions to the previous anti-trade union laws is an increasingly prescriptive question for industrial action ballots. Every action of the strike as well as the type of industrial action must be stipulated, as well as “the period or periods within which the industrial action or, as the case may be, each type of industrial action is expected to take place”. The Act also demands the appointment of picket supervisors who must make themselves known to police and employers and carry a letter of authorisation. Breaches of any of the restrictions will in future attract criminal charges. The timing and duration of industrial action is also changed with the notice to employers of strike action, formerly seven days, extended to 14 days, and the duration of a strike without a renewed ballot reduced to six months. Thus these new measures deliberately make it extremely difficult for the trade unions to act against the tactics of employers and government, and facilitate the courts being able to rule against the workers.
In addition, new measures in the Act attempt to limit the ability of trade unions to organise in the workplace. Unable to justify the scrapping altogether of paid time off for union duties (facility time), the Act still enables interference by the state in the amount and cost of negotiated facility time for union representatives and threatens to bring further measures on this. Unable to scrap the negotiated check-off system, a system whereby trade unions recover membership dues directly through wages via the employer, after legal challenges from PCS and others unions the Act is still imposing financial charges for check-off even though many unions pay this where appropriate.
Of all the attacks one of the most significant is under sections 11 and 12 concerning the political fund, which specifies that a member must opt in to the union’s political fund rather than opt out. It is the right of trade unions to make a collective decision to support, or not support, a political party. The fact that trade unions give the right to a member to opt-out of contributing to the political fund could also be considered a collective decision to harmonise these collective decisions of the trade union with the conscience of individuals. For the government to authorise the state to interfere in this arrangement is clearly a cynical move against the workers’ right of political association. It is also a deliberate attack against any party that is supported by the trade unions and an attack that openly favours the monopolies and the rich in society. It is an attempt to sabotage the right of trade unions to act in a political way to defend their members. What the government refuses to recognise, wilfully or through class prejudice, are collective rights; the trade unions have come to collective decisions whereas the government would like their members to act as atomised individuals.
The Act also viciously interferes in the political affairs of the union in demanding that the trade union’s annual return includes details of political expenditure on parties supported, candidates supported and almost every type of extra-Parliamentary activity to the Certification Officer. At the same time of course, whilst claiming that “employers’ organisations” are covered by this, the state makes no move to interfere against the employers themselves. The monopoly corporations and rich individuals who extract huge profits from the labour of working people and use such funds to support parties that represent their interests without any opt-out, or opt-in, of their workforce. This shows in whose interests these new powers are being given.
New powers are also given by the Act to the Certification Officer which politicises this post against the trade unions with powers to investigate, initiate complaints against any national, regional and local bodies and branches of trade union enacting “enforcement orders” as well as compliance in administering the political funds. The Act states that “an enforcement order made by the Certification Officer under this section may be enforced by the Officer in the same way as an order of the court”. The human rights organisation Liberty in its briefing on the Trade Union Billiii pointed out: “The cumulative impact of the new proposals would mean that the Certification Officer is responsible for making a complaint, investigating it, reaching a decision and setting a punishment. It is contrary to all notions of justice and best practice for each stage in a process of determining compliance with legal rules to be conducted by the one body. Taking this approach fundamentally undermines the fair administration of justice and the rule of law.” In addition beside imposing this unjust extra-judicial legal sanction against the trade unions the Act under section 20, also imposes a levy on the trade unions to pay for the expenses of the officer in carrying out the functions of investigating, judging and imposing fines on them!
The role of the workers’ movement
It has constantly been pointed out that there is no justice in these hated measures and that they come in the context of the increased resistance against the government’s austerity measures, privatisation, cuts and attacks on the terms and conditions of working people. It is especially focused on the public sector at this time. The heroic strike struggle of the junior doctors relating not only to their pay and conditions but to the future of the health service which is being jeopardised is just one of the latest examples. The Act is an attempt to prevent the workers from bringing their numbers and organisation into play in this resistance, and is itself an abuse of power by the government for which they have no mandate.
The government also declared it a UK Act refusing the right of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies to reject the Bill, despite the opposition and the concern of such bodies as the Law Society of Scotland, who challenged the Bill’s compatibility with human rights legislation.
The fact is that the workers’ right to organise to defend their interests is already shackled in so many ways, many of them dating from the Thatcher government’s anti-trade union laws. Not only the interests and dignity of working people are at stake, but so is the broad issue of the public good.
It is working people who are the producers of added value, of wealth in the economy. Indeed, the programme of the working class is a broad programme for defence of the rights of all, for a new direction for society and the economy, for a way out of the crisis and the capital-centred austerity programme, and for the alternative, a new society.
To achieve their aim of the complete dominance of their capital-centred system the government would like to wipe out the workers’ movement in its entirety. Not only can this not be achieved, but the attempt, framed in hypocritical sentiments about the good of the country, of essential services, and working as one nation, is fraught with danger. Resistance is growing and what is required is to expose the criminal nature of the government’s agenda and show how another narrative and political agenda is not only possible but the necessity of the times. The Act must be repealed along with all anti-trade unions laws.
ii The Trade Union Act Is An Unjust Law, And It Spells Trouble Carolyn Jones – Assistant Secretary, Campaign For Trade Union Freedom