UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

What will the Tory Trade Union Bill mean for YOU?

Headlines on the new Trade Union Bill and subsequent blog postings have concentrated on the threat to strike action, through the new thresholds on ballots, and on the new laws regarding picketing and strike breaking. The ability of workers to exercise the right to withdraw their labour is under threat as never before, and opposition to the bill is rightly unanimous throughout the trade union movement. The current anti trade union laws in this country are outwith international law as defined in the ILO conventions and the changes make a bad situation worse.

As local stewards however it is easy to share the outrage and then assume that the impact on the way that we go about the everyday activities that we take for granted will be minimal. The grievances and disciplines, the representation over reorganisations, the local campaigning will all still continue as long as the members still have problems and we represent the workforce. The truth unfortunately is that our role will be significantly changed, and as UNISON is based primarily on lay organisation at a local level, we will be drastically curtailed in our ability to act on behalf of our members. The devil, as always, is in the detail.

Our ability to represent our members depends at a basic level on facility time. Experience has demonstrated that in many employers this is already under attack, with many shop stewards finding that time off for trade union duties has become a rarer commodity, particularly as the workforce diversifies as a result of privatisations. At the same time many employers recognise the importance of decent labour relations and have maintained facilities for trade union representatives.

The new Bill introduces regulation of these arrangements by requiring employers to report on the resources allocated for facility time in organisations providing public services. In addition, the government is also taking powers to impose a cap on the amount of facility time paid in each public and local authority so that local arrangements will be under not only close scrutiny but subject to outside control.

The Bill also introduces the power to reduce the statutory rights of “trade union officials” to paid time off. In UNISON parlance, indeed in general trade union circles, “trade union officials” have always been a union’s paid employees, as opposed to the “lay officials“ at local level, but the intention of the bill as framed would seem to be designed to affect the local lay leadership. Given that such language is common in industrial relations circles and could be assumed to be known by civil servants, it does cause a certain amount of wonder as to where this Bill was drafted. Tory Party HQ perhaps?

Now even if the union has a written agreement with an employer that provides for an approved and established arrangement for local representation, the Bill gives the government the power to interfere in individual contracts of employment and collective agreements which provide for facility time even though these are voluntarily agreed by public sector employers. Valuable local arrangements that work to the benefit of employees and employers by providing effective and efficient industrial relations frameworks in which trade unions are likely to be regarded as constructive partners will be under threat.

As well as state interference in local arrangements, the Bill gives the Certification Officer new powers under which trade unions will be required to detail any industrial action that has taken place in the last twelve months, the nature of the dispute and the action and the turnout in the ballot. Local UNISON branches, in collaboration with the region, will need to ensure that all such records are scrupulous. Where that will leave branches who ballot to put pressure on an employer to get them back to the negotiating table, a common tactic (and a useful one), is debatable.

There are some parts of this legislation that are simply ripe for parody. Even where a ballot is successful under the well documented draconian new regulations, branches will have to conform to the new picketing code. Unions, whether the local branch or the General Secretary, as it’s not specified, must appoint a “picket supervisor”. Will this now become a position subject to election at the AGM- a new addition to the rulebook:- Chair, Secretary, Treasurer, Official Captain Mainwaring?

Our Captain will be responsible for carrying a letter of “authorisation”, compulsorily to be presented to any passing police constable, or indeed any other busybody, sorry any person who requests it. Experience on picket lines suggests that 90 per cent of those approaching pickets do so to offer support. Now the small minority who do so to cause trouble have official sanction.

The “picket supervisor” must of course wear an armband or indentifying badge. UNISONActive would suggest that perhaps the identifying marks could be a little gold badge and a colourful stripe around the blazer, similar to the prefect’s uniform worn when they were supervising the Lower Fourth at cricket, as most Tories would recognise that. Seemingly a hi-viz vest with the word “picket” is insufficient.

Alternatively, perhaps we could voluntarily don the red triangle. As to the sanctions for those failing to comply, whether they will be new criminal offences or new civil offences, allowing an application for an injunction or damages, is not yet decided.

Also up for consideration are wide ranging restrictions on the right to protest, when those protests “are linked to industrial” action. So a protest march at the Town Hall or City Chambers or at a local hospital to register dissent at likely budget changes that will lead to redundancies and job losses and possibly strike action, becomes, what? - certainly a “reportable activity” under this legislation.

Branches would not only need to specify where and when such protests would take place but also have the clairvoyance to predict the numbers and the “loudspeakers, props and banners“ that will be there. Please be careful in these circumstances that you do not underestimate the number of vuvuzelas, whistles and clackers that will turn up. No doubt a new crack police squad of gismo counters is about to be formed, with the motto: “You strike- we get the overtime”.

The new squad will also have to turn away all those community groups that unexpectedly turn up to offer their support because their banners will not be part of the official protest. With a degree of training they could surely master the phrase: “Sorry Madam, the union haven’t included you on the guest list for this demo today, I’m afraid”?

However the anniversary of Orgreave suggests that the training would need to be very, very intensive to inculcate that level of sensibility. And please, please don’t set up a facebook page or twitter account to publicise your action. That also comes under scrutiny, for which the union needs to be answerable. And what if you do so as an individual? That is not mentioned. Yet many union communications, like UNISONActive itself, are not official union publications. What level of censorship will we be subject to?

The utterly petty nature of this particular part of the Bill seems as irritating as a highland midgie, itchy and scratchy but unlikely to kill you, until you consider the significance and meaning of this deeply flawed and ideological piece of legislation. No industrial action in this country is political. Industrial action usually follows a breakdown in a negotiating situation and union members are not Pavlov’s dogs awaiting the whistle of “All out” to take strike action. But the message of anti trade union legislation is clear. In the case of a breakdown in negotiation, one side is always right, and that side is the employers.

Most of us spend part of our lives as trade union activists. The rest of the time we are parents, partners and, friends. In our ordinary, everyday lives we are part of organisations outside of our trade unions, whether in sports clubs, or social clubs, supervising the cubs or guides or organising the football bus for the away games, taking part in a book group or a local salsa class, or the local WI. Take your pick or add your own preference. The point is that we all play a role in a multitude of voluntary organisations where we know and accept the rules of the organisation and don’t expect the state to interfere.

Should the Tories seek to legislate to change the rules of the local dance club to insist that only one style of salsa was acceptable; who could dance with whom; to which particular music; what the bar could serve, and appoint a dance supervisor to ensure that the rules were obeyed, then there would be an outcry at unwarranted government interference in areas outside of their remit and intrusion in the lives of citizens.

The only voluntary group in civil society that is subject to unwarranted government interference, intrusion and sanction is the trade union. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination. These rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible but not if you are a trade unionist. If this act was printed with the word “Christian” or “Women” replacing every reference to a trade union or trade unionists, its utter repugnance would lead to widespread condemnation.

Our role as trade unionists is to represent the interests of our members and to challenge on their behalf. That includes standing up to a government whose policies impoverish those that we represent. This bill seeks to punish dissent, silence the dissenters, and make it impossible for our protests whether civil or industrial to take place; but the threats to jobs pay and conditions are not going away, so neither is this fight.

At least transportation to the colonies is less likely nowadays...