This week in Westminster I have voted against the Trade Union Bill which was brought forward by the government as a divisive piece of legislation which puts to bed any notion that the Government is taking a one nation approach. This Bill is the most significant, sustained and partisan attack on the trade union movement in a generation.
The key measures in the Bill which have been widely reported in the media include a 50% turnout threshold in all strike ballots and a 40% affirmative vote of all those entitled to vote in ‘important’ public services. What is less reported is the human rights implications.
The interference of the state in the internal affairs of a trade union clearly runs counter to Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, transposed into UK law as the Human Rights Act, which states; “everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association, including the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his interests… no restriction shall be placed on the exercise of these rights”.
Another aspect of the Bill, to change the current “opt-out” of a trade union political fund to an “opt-in” would severely limit the political campaigning of trade unions. This is not the first time a Conservative administration has legislated on trade union issues but Sir Winston Churchill, speaking in the House of Commons in 1948 acknowledged the existence of a parliamentary custom where parties would refrain from interfering in the interests of rival parties. Even the Thatcher government recoiled from introducing an opt-in system for political fund subscriptions, which is included in the current Bill. When the matter was discussed at cabinet in 1984 the Prime Minister spoke on the subject, “legislation on this subject, which would affect the funding of the Labour Party, would create great unease and should not be entered into lightly.”
It’s a sorry state of affairs that the Government cannot see the huge economic benefits of trade union memberships and strong trade unions. Looking at the relationship between two major economic trends since the 1970s – declining union membership and a shrinking share of wages and salaries in national income – it becomes clear that the UK has paid a heavy economic price for years of labour market deregulation and anti-union policies. The role of trade unions in ensuring a successful economy must be recognised if the damaging decline in the portion of national income going to wages is to be reversed.