Trades Union Acts: The Necessity for Workers’ Rights and Organisation:

The Necessity for Workers’ Rights and Organisation to develop empowerment and Opposition.

The General Election campaign in its first week has already seen workers’ rights to organise in Trades Unions highlighted. It is essential that representation of the working class and its Independent political voice is stamped in the context of   the rights of all.

Jeremy Corbyn has said,

“… one of the very first things we will do when forming our Labour government will be to repeal the vicious Tory Trade Union Act. Giving people the rights to collectively organise and make their lives better, safer and more content.”

The legislation, brought in by David Cameron’s administration, introduced a threshold for workers voting in strike ballots for action to be legal. Among other measures it also requires strikers to give employees a minimum of 14 days’ notice before industrial action, rather than seven.

Corbyn spoke of   people having to oppose the powerful and challenging, “the rigged system”, whilst standing “for the many not the few”.

In opposition, Teresa May’s Conservative Party has given the call for “strong government”, for the use of unfettered police powers.They intend to orchestrate an electoral coup with increased repressive anti-working class powers to enable the use of the courts and the state to act against the unions and strikes. They have already mentioned banning strikes in certain areas of the infrastructure.

The Necessity for Workers’ Rights and Organisation can be borne out of history where persistent Trades Union legislation, mainly by Conservatives, has repeatedly attempted to undermine the workers’ capacity to act.

History has shown an uninterrupted series of legislative Acts affecting Trades Unions.

Right from the early days of feudal England the Ordinance of Labourers 1349 and the Statute of Labourers 1351 attempted to suppress sources of wage inflation by banning workers organisation, creating offences for any able-bodied person that did not work, and fixing wages at the time of the great plague and after to pre-plague levels.

An endeavour by the ruling class was made to make even economic resistance impossible. The act against illegal oaths passed in 1797 against the “Nore Mutineers” was used to break up existing Trade Unions;

Nineteenth century Britain recognised the now established post Industrial Revolution class division society where the class relations of production were clear. The Master and Servant Act 1823 and subsequent updates stipulated that all workmen were subject to criminal penalties for disobedience, and calling for strikes was punished as an “aggravated” breach of contract. The capitalist accumalation based on suppressing the claim on value of the product, was not going be allowed to impede profit by collective organisation.

Parliamentary legislation and consolidation of capitalist laws can be seen throughout history. The most infamous were the Combination Acts. The Combination Act 1799 was an Act to prevent capitalist notions put into practice for unlawful combinations of working people that, prohibited trade unions and collective bargaining by British workers. The Act received Royal Assent on 12 July 1799. An additional Act was passed in 1800.

The 1799 and 1800 acts were passed under the government of William Pitt the Younger against strikes. Collectively these acts were known as the Combination Laws.The legislation drove labour organisations underground. Sympathy for the plight of the workers brought repeal of the acts in 1824, political actions inside and outside of   Parliament incuding by Chartist reformer, Francis Place played a role. However, in response to the series of strikes that followed, the Combinations of Workmen Act 1825 was passed, which allowed labour unions but severely restricted their activity.

The 1825 Act followed on from the Combination Act 1799 and the Combination of Workmen Act 1824. The 1824 Act repealed the Acts of 1799 and 1800, but this led to a wave of strikes. Accordingly, the Combinations of Workmen Act 1825 was passed to reimpose criminal sanctions for picketing and other persuasive methods used to cause workers not to work. The laws though, even made any combinations or unions pressing for wage increases or change working hours illegal.

Yet changing laws and the struggle to do so forced changes. The 1825 Act was recommended for amendment by the majority report of the Eleventh and Final Report of the Royal Commissioners appointed to Inquire into the Organisation and Rules of Trade Unions and Other Associations. It was wholly displaced by the Trade Union Act 1871.

Trade Union Act 1871 was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom which legalised trade unions for the first time in the United Kingdom. This was one of the founding pieces of legislation in UK labour law, though it has today been superseded by the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.

The Conservative Prime Minister, the Earl of Derby, set up a Royal Commission on Trade Unions in 1867. One worker representative was on the commission, Frederic Harrison, who prepared union witnesses. Robert Applegarth from the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners was a union observer of the proceedings.

The majority report of the Commission was hostile to the idea of decriminalising trade unions. Frederic Harrison, Thomas Hughes and the Earl of Lichfield produced their own minority report, recommending the following changes in the law:

  • Combinations of workers should not be liable for conspiracy unless it would be criminal if committed by a single person.
  • The restraint of trade doctrine in common law should not apply to trade associations.
  • All existing legislation applying to unions specifically should be repealed.
  • All unions should receive full legal protection of their funds.

When Gladstone’s government came to power, the Trade Union Congress campaigned for the minority report to be adopted it was successful.

The Provisions of the Act were:

Section 2 provided that the purposes of trade unions should not, although possibly deemed to be in restraint of trade, be deemed unlawful to make any member liable for criminal prosecution.

Section 3 said the restraint of trade doctrine should not make any trade union agreements or trusts void or voidable.

Section 4 stated that any trade union agreements were not directly enforceable or subject to claims for damages for breach. This was designed to ensure that courts did not interfere in union affairs.

However the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1871 was passed at the same time, which made picketing illegal. This was not repealed until the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875.

The Act was fully repealed by the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1974.

The Trade Disputes Act 1906, laid down the essential principle of collective labour law that any strike “in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute” is immune from civil law sanctions.

The Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1974 (TULRA) was a UK Act of Parliament, now replaced by the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. The 1974 Act was introduced by the Labour Government, and both repealed and replaced the Conservatives’ Industrial Relations Act 1971. Together with the Employment Protection Act 1975, the act formed the basis of the Labour Party’s employment law programme under the Social Contract. It was an Act to repeal the Industrial Relations Act 1971; to make provision with respect to the law relating to trade unions, employers’ associations, workers and employers, including the law relating to unfair dismissal, and with respect to the jurisdiction and procedure of industrial tribunals.

TULRA 1974’s main provisions mirror those found in TULRCA 1992 today, with fewer complexities and restrictions. It contains rules on trade unions functioning and legal status, the presumption that a collective agreement is not binding, and immunity of unions who take strike action in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute.

The Employment Act 1980 (c 42) is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, mainly relating to trade unions, it was notoriously named “Thatcher’s Laws” after then Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

It restricted the definition of lawful picketing and introduced ballots on the existence of the closed shop where it operated, needing 80% support of the workers to be maintained. The 1982 Act limited grounds for strike action. Pickets would have to be localised so that “Secondary Picketting” would be made illegal or solidarity and sympathy actions from the rest of the working class. Pickets could only concern themselves with economic, pay and jobs, or local conditions and would be limited to six people. The excuse was to prevent intimidation and outlaw union discipline and rules on none striking or “scab” labour. It was to prevent pickets as factory gate demonstrations.The 1982 Act also made unions liable in law for damages arising from disputes. Up to £250,000 could be seized by the courts, or sequestered, from union funds.

In addition, the 1986 Public Order Act introduced criminal offences related to picketing. Anyone attempting to organise an effective picket line could face arrest or jail.

Between 1980 and 1993 there were six Acts of Parliament which increasingly restricted unions’ ability to undertake lawful industrial action. Ballots were needed for official industrial action from 1984 and these had to be postal from 1993. Workers’ organisations has had to adjust their tactics to use ballots as part of the negotiating process. It has in reality consolidated larger voting turnouts in industrial ballots and recorded higher percentages of voting unity to proclaim strikes. It has happened because of the build of tensions over longer periods of time maturing into stronger conflicts. It has also caused greater costs, while the requirement to give employers seven days’ notice was intended to further reduced unions’ ability to respond quickly and render effectiveness of any action they took, in other words lightning action was curtailed.

Employers could also gain injunctions from the High Court to stop unions undertaking strikes if there was any doubt as to their legality (facilitated by the increasing complexity of strike law). This tactic led to many strikes being abandoned, though if unions persisted they could be charged with contempt of court and fined or even have their assets seized. A throwback to the 1906 Trade Disputes Act when unions were at the mercy of the courts.

The Conservative government also interfered with the running of unions’ internal affairs by compelling certain forms of election for executive committees and general secretaries, irrespective of the traditions of individual unions. It created a so-called Commissioner for the Rights of Trade Union Members to encourage members to pursue complaints against their unions.

A legal requirement on unions to hold Political Fund ballots every ten years backfired (from 1984-85) as it actually led to an increase in the number of unions holding such funds.

The most important factor in history has been the organisational toos and froes since the inception of labouring classes in society. The capitalists have continued to regulate union organisations as part of the control they have over pro-social movements. Parliamentary Acts are not seen in isolation but have evolved in a regular pattern. It has been the result of regular adverse packages of anti-working class and Trade Union law, particularly by the Conservative Party. They want to marginalise workers and prevent their empowerment.

Very closely related to a accessing Police Powers by the Government, is the legislation against workers organising in Trades Unions. It has been an imperative for all fascist dictatorships. This why after defeat of the Nazis in World War Two the United Nations and the European Convention of Human Rights recognised the rights of workers to organise in Trades Unions.

A fundamental change in the direction of society in reality means that an end must come to the entire process so that a complete change and repeal from such laws is essential, not only the most recent activity. Representation of the working class and its Independent political voice is key to its progressive march.

Notes:

After 1979 unions became heavily regulated. Today union governance can be configured, so long as it complies with the compulsory standards set by the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.

Before 1979, all unions had systems of elections. In most the members elected union executives directly. However, government thought that indirect elections (e.g. where members voted for delegates, who elected executives in conference) made a minority of unions more “out of touch” and militant.

TULRCA 1992 section 46 requires that members have direct voting rights for the executive, which cannot stay in office for more than five years. Rules were passed saying no candidate may be unreasonably excluded from an election, all voters are equal, and postal ballots must be available.

A Certification Officer can hear complaints, make inquiries, and issue enforcement orders, which can in turn be appealed to the High Court.

TULRCA 1992 section 47, prohibits exclusions of candidates.

“Natural justice”, courts, may override a union’s express rules.

Beyond union governance through the vote and elections, members have five main statutory rights. First, although statute asserts that a union is “not a body corporate”, in every practical sense it is: it can make contracts, commission torts (Infringement of rights), hold property, sue and be sued.

The union’s executives and officials carry out actions on its behalf, and their acts are attributed to it by ordinary principles of agency. However, if any union official acts ultra vires, beyond the union’s powers, every member has a right to claim a remedy for the breach.

Decisions by union executivess to increase membership fees has been restrained, because the constitution required a two-third vote of members.

TULRCA 1992 section 28 requires unions to keep accounts, giving a “true and fair” view of its financial affairs. Records are kept for six years, members have a right to inspect them, they are independently audited and overseen by the Certification Officer.

Third, members have a right to not give contributions to the trade union’s political fund, if there is one. Conservative governments attempted to suppress unions’ political voice, particularly compared to funding by employers through control of corporations.

Under TULRCA 1992 sections 72, 73 and 82, a union must hold a separate fund for any “political object” (such as advertising, lobbying or donations), members must approve the fund by ballot at least every 10 years, and individual members have a right to opt-out of it (unlike shareholders in companies). Unions must also have political objects in the constitution.

 

 

 

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